Some traveled by foot. Others mounted a donkey or horse for the long journey. Roads were rarely paved, and nary a street light lit the way forward.
For vaccinology expert Maria Elena Bottazzi, PhD ’95, growing up in rural Honduras lack of access to health care faced by many across the globe. Inspired by what she witnessed, Bottazzi, who was selected by the National Academy of Medicine in 2019 as one of 10 Emerging Leaders in Health and Medicine Scholars, has devoted her career to developing affordable, available vaccines for all.
“I grew up in Tegucigalpa, and my family drove 13 hours every weekend to our farm in Olancho, one of the most vast states in Honduras where many communities live far from the main towns,” Bottazzi says. “If you look at low-resource, small villages around the world, sometimes the health posts are miles away from the main city. You can’t just get on a bus and go. Nobody should have to worry about finding the appropriate health post and then struggle to gain transportation to that health post. That’s why I wanted to work in microbiology, to develop technologies appropriate for remote, resource-poor settings that could serve people who have to make such a hard journey.”
Bottazzi, who serves as co-director at Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, an associate dean at the Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine and a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and molecular virology at Baylor, works to eliminate the cycle of poverty through studying neglected and emerging tropical diseases.
Chagas’ disease, schistosomiasis, intestinal worms and other neglected tropical diseases often affect those who receive little or no education about hygiene, potable water and placing screens over their windows to prevent mosquitoes. Though not all of these diseases are fatal, the chronic morbidities, intellectual, physical and social havoc they wreak can leave people unable to care for themselves or maintain jobs.
“This is a continuous cycle,” she says. “You can’t get out of poverty, get yourself educated and get access to health care when you’re chronically sick. I want to not only understand these diseases but also help find better tools to diagnose, prevent and treat them. If we design tools in a way that they’re cheap and easily adopted, we can help these populations get out of the cycle of poverty.”
Currently, Bottazzi is developing vaccines for a handful of neglected tropical diseases, including hookworm, which affects more than 700 million people worldwide, and schistosomiasis, the deadliest among the most prevalent neglected tropical diseases, caused by infection with freshwater parasitic worms.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bottazzi and her colleagues at Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine have resumed work on a vaccine developed a decade ago to prevent SARS-1, a coronavirus that is 80% genetically similar to COVID-19. When the vaccine was ready to enter the human clinical trial stage years ago, Bottazzi says, there was a lack of funding and interest in moving the product forward. In 2020, her team used the lessons learned from this vaccine to develop a vaccine specific for COVID-19, with the goal of developing a universal coronavirus vaccine for future coronaviruses.
Recently, the COVID-19 vaccine was non-exclusively licensed to an India-based manufacturer and is now rapidly advancing into clinical development. Bottazzi remains hopeful that the vaccine can be developed and made readily available to all who need it, regardless of geography or social status.
“The human race thrives by living in community,” she says. “I hope that if any lessons come of this disaster, it’s that we see more and more breaking down of these issues with race and class, the separation of those who have and those who have not. I hope we can move beyond these man-made bureaucracies that don’t allow us to live harmoniously in this world.”
Bottazzi’s journey toward becoming a vaccinology specialist working in global health began in her childhood. Born in Italy, Bottazzi moved to Honduras when she was 9. Growing up in a developing nation with a pronounced divide between the rich and the poor, Bottazzi became consumed by the barriers many Hondurans face to access health care and health care technologies.
“In my mind, there was always that question of, ‘How can you improve the health and well-being of the population, especially those who don’t have the resources to reach the health care system?’” Bottazzi says.
While studying microbiology as an undergraduate student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, Bottazzi began her career in earnest when she developed a tool to diagnose neurocysticercosis, a disease caused when tapeworm in their larval stage lodge in the brain.
“Neurocysticercosis was underdiagnosed because some of the tools to diagnose it weren’t available to all,” she says. “The key was to find a simpler, more sensitive and affordable technique. That was a starting point for me. I began looking at the disease, what solutions we have available and how we can improve the way we detect and eventually prevent or treat this disease.”
When she entered the UF College of Medicine as a graduate student in the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine, Bottazzi found mentors in faculty like Maureen Goodenow, PhD, now the director of the National Institutes of Health Office of AIDS Research and a close collaborator of Bottazzi’s to this day. Bottazzi credits her training at the UF College of Medicine, which allowed her to collaborate with both clinical faculty and basic science researchers, for providing the missing link in her study of disease.
“I came from Honduras with the clinical and epidemiological experience and the curiosity to develop technology to identify, prevent or treat diseases, but I hadn’t had that molecular and cellular understanding of disease, as in deep virology and immunology,” Bottazzi says. “That’s what my PhD gave me: a complete understanding of how pathogens cause pathology in the host.”
As an educator, scientist and global leader in tropical and emerging diseases, Bottazzi has not one but four missions that motivate her each day to create real change for the world’s most vulnerable populations: research; education and training; clinical care; and community engagement and service.
“My multiple roles allow me to train and build the next generation of scientists and health care providers, address clinical needs and advance biotechnology to create tangible global health solutions,” she says.