Thursday, February 29, 2024

Veterinary college’s Roger Ramirez-Barrios receives Zoetis Research Award

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Roger Ramirez-Barrios, clinical associate professor of veterinary parasitology, has been awarded the prestigious 2023 Zoetis Research Award. This award acknowledges researchers whose innovative studies advance the scientific standing of veterinary medicine. 

His recent work has focused on two parasites that pose health risks to humans and animals: Echinococcus multilocularis and Trypanosoma cruzi. He also explored Chagas disease, caused by T. cruzi, a condition personal to him because of its impact on his family. 

Ramirez-Barrios emphasizes his students’ role in his research. He also said he appreciates the supportive environment at the college, particularly praising the resources provided by the Collaborative Multidisciplinary Research Laboratory.

E. multilocularis research

As a co-author for a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Ramirez-Barrios helped sound the alarm on the presence of E. multilocularis in the eastern United States.  

E. multilocularis causes a cyst in the liver that could be misidentified as cancer. Once a human is infected, it can take 10 to 15 years before signs and symptoms appear.  

The first two human cases of the rare disease in the eastern United States were reported in Vermont. Ramirez-Barrios and his colleagues found that for one of the human cases, E. multilocularis was genetically similar to samples found in two foxes in Virginia. 

Since Ramirez-Barrios and co-authors published the letter, other researchers have been looking for the parasite, and E. multilocularis has been identified multiple times in the United States. Four cases in Pennsylvania have been reported in coyotes, and three in Virginia have been reported in foxes. 

Dogs can also get infected by the parasite, which spreads through contact with feces, but Ramirez-Barrios is more concerned with how foxes could potentially spread the parasite. 

“Foxes are now invading anthropogenic areas. For example, D.C. — we found the first two foxes we reported in the article in Clarke County and Loudoun County, which border D.C,” he said. 

“They are invading urban areas, so the risk for people is increasing, but there is no information. We are working on this with the Virginia health department to try to educate people. We started with the Virginia wildlife department, educating hunters about their risk and the measures they can take to avoid infection.”  

T. cruzi and Chagas disease

Ramirez-Barrios’ work with T. cruzi hits close to home. This parasite causes Chagas disease. 

“Two of my uncles died of Chagas disease. The parasite and disease are an important part of my life because in Latin America, it’s very common, especially for people who grow up in very poor areas, like my mother’s and father’s families,” said Ramirez-Barrios.  

Spread through the bites of “kissing bugs,” Chagas disease is a lifelong condition that can be life-threatening. About 20 to 30 percent of people with Chagas disease develop cardiac or gastrointestinal complications.  

Ramirez-Barrios started examining Chagas disease in hunting dogs in Virginia and West Virginia and has since expanded his scope to dogs in New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. 

His dream is to develop a new diagnostic test for Chagas disease that is accessible to the poor Latin American populations that are most at risk for the disease.  

Support from the college 

For Ramirez-Barrios, research is a team effort. 

“I love teaching students and doing research with them. Research is also teaching because you have to train and mentor students. Students are one of the biggest parts of my research. I couldn’t do any of this without students,” he said.

Earlier this year, he was named the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association’s Mentor of the Year

This past year, he worked with students to research and write two papers on parasites found in foxhounds in a New Jersey kennel. The dogs had nose parasites, so Ramirez-Barrios and students evaluated the dogs’ abilities to detect odors. They found that several of the foxhounds had drug-resistant hookworms — the first time that drug-resistant hookworms have been reported outside of greyhounds. 

In addition to students, Ramirez-Barrios said that the college’s Collaborative Multidisciplinary Research Laboratory has significantly impacted his research. 

The 3,000-square-foot space opened in 2022 and was designed to help various veterinary clinical researchers work together to tackle challenges. 

Ramirez-Barrios said that because the fully equipped laboratory provides basic materials such as gloves and pipettes, he can save grant money. The lab stays organized because of laboratory manager Michelle Todd, and Ramirez-Barrios can dedicate more time and energy to investigating parasites. 

“It’s amazing how this college has treated me,” said Ramirez-Barrios. “I don’t have much experience with U.S. institutions. Still, one of my biggest concerns when I started in academia in the United States was am I going to be accepted, valued, heard? And I think this is the perfect institution for that. I feel that, especially from my department.”

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