U of M and Brazilian researchers partner to fight infectious disease

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It's difficult to treat a disease caused by something you don't know is there.

That's why Marna Ericson, Ph.D. in the Department of Dermatology and Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota's Medical School and Paulo Velho, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in Campinas, Brazil are combining experience and expertise internationally to learn more about the hard-to-detect bacteria Bartonella.

Ericson and Velho are part of a joint U.S.-Brazil March government initiative encouraging science and technology collaboration between the U.S. and Brazil.

Not only did the pair recently participate in a round table discussion at the U.S. Department of State on recruiting, retaining and advancing women in science, but they also just received a three-year grant to study Bartonella from Brazilian government program Science Without Borders, alongside U of M Department of Medicine Professor Kalpna Gupta and two UNICAMP researchers.

"Bartonella may be causing sickness and we don't know it, because there's no good way to test for it," said Ericson. "Even the best state-of-the-art tests are inadequate."

Bartonella lives inside red blood cells and is responsible for cat scratch disease; an infection transmitted by--you guessed it--cats (although ticks, flies, fleas and other blood-transmitters can carry it, too). This stealthy bacterium is also responsible for an unknown number of other health problems including skin lesions, liver infections and brain dysfunction.

International collaboration between Brazil and U of M researchers is vital to successful research on Bartonella. Velho's yearlong appointment at the U allows both U of M researchers and Velho to share their unique experiences and research with the bacteria originally discovered in South America.

"We are a good example of collaborative work," Velho said, adding that Ericson and himself are hoping to make it easier for others to participate in a university exchange like their own.

If Ericson and Velho succeed in developing a better way to detect Bartonella, their international collaboration will result in cost savings stemming from improper disease diagnoses and will set the scene for developing treatments that have the potential to improve lives and help cure Bartonella-related disease.

(Photo credit: Tissue staining of Bartonella in skin by Marna Ericson.)

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