For the past 70 years, Venezuelan researcher Dr. Jacinto Convit has been investigating some of the most challenging public health problems, from leprosy to leishmaniasis to cancer, and caring for thousands of the patients most in need. His accomplishments have contributed to the health of his country from top to bottom, the biomedical institute he founded helping to streamline and promote innovative research. At 99 years old, Venezuela’s pride is not finished yet: this time, he’s taking on cancer.
This past week, six remarkable scientists were chosen to receive Nobel Prizes for their work, from a pool of an even greater number of worthy nominees. In 1988, Venezuelan researcher Jacinto Convit was among the nominees, acknowledged for his huge contributions to health, including profoundly life-changing developments for those patients most scorned throughout history: victims of leprosy. Already well advanced in his career at the time of his nomination, at age 99 he is still in the lab today.
Dr. Convit currently leads a group investigating immune therapy for breast, stomach and colon cancer, which are just the latest illnesses of many he has chosen to attack. Over the years, Jacinto Convit has created a biomedical foundation, gained international recognition for its health worker training, brought greater integration of services to Venezuela’s health system, advanced the understanding of several parasitic diseases, and eliminated leprosy as a public health problem – all in a country hardly over-endowed with resources. This prolific career began, in fact, in the very modest surroundings of the Cabo Blanco Leper Colony.
A centuries-old public health problem, resolved
While studying for his medical degree at the School of Medicine of the Central University of Venezuela in the 1930s, Jacinto Convit accompanied his dermatology professor to work at a leper colony near Caracas. At the time, victims of leprosy had essentially no hope. A chronic bacterial disease that attacks the skin, upper airway and nerves in the arms and legs, leprosy was feared throughout history as a horrible, highly contagious disease. Today we know it is not highly transmissible and can be easily treated, but in the early 20th century this was not the case. At the time, things had not improved much over the Middle Ages when lepers were forced to wear special clothes and ring a bell to warn of their approach.
The treatment in the early 1900s, Dr. Convit has written, consisted of either chaulmoogra oil—produced from the nut of the same name and used in Chinese traditional medicine, but of unproven efficacy in the treatment of leprosy—or painkillers, like morphine, to ease the intense pain of nerve damage caused by the disease. With no real treatment available, and intense popular fear of the disease spreading, patients were subject to “mandatory hospitalization”, where they would necessarily lose contact with family, friends and society. To avoid this fate, some chose to live, and suffer, in hiding.
In 1940, a compound, sulfone, was discovered that blocked Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium responsible for leprosy. The young doctor Convit used this to treat successfully, for the first time, his leprosy patients. This achievement allowed for the treatment of over 14,000 patients in Venezuela, and for what was, effectively, their release from medical imprisonment. Throughout his career, he has fought to remove the stigma associated with this disease. Following this success came the development, by Dr. Convit and his team, of a vaccine, aimed at both treating and preventing leprosy. Due to the similarity between the bacteria that cause leprosy and tuberculosis, the TB vaccine was used as a base, and mixed with M. leprae. The first results were hailed as a great success in treating leprosy, although the efficacy of the vaccine has since been disputed.
M. leprae is also costly to obtain. As it cannot be grown in culture, its main sources are certain laboratory mice and the only animal besides humans that is naturally infected: the armadillo. The use of this vaccine was gradually replaced, for the most part, by a multidrug treatment. Its use in Venezuela, starting in 1982, allowed Jacinto Convit and colleagues to reduce the nation’s leprosy rate even further; the disease was now no longer a public health concern. Still, not satisfied by these successes, Convit wrote in 2002 that more intensive research was needed to obtain a preventive vaccine, as only this could eradicate the disease. Ten years later, this message remains the same. Although leprosy is rare today in countries like the United States, pockets of it exist around the world, and the appearance of antibiotic-resistant M. leprae adds to the urgency.
Inspiring Science for Developing Countries
Increasing the efficiency of medical research and its application, in order to care for those most in need, has long been an objective for Jacinto Convit. For developing countries, depending solely on industrialized nations to carry out the necessary research and provide treatments for diseases largely specific to poorer nations is too costly and too slow. These countries, as well, need to have the tools to fight such health problems directly.
For this, Dr. Convit knew the importance of integrating research, training and treatment. The Institute of Biomedicine that he founded successfully brought together major Venezuelan health institutions to operate in concert. “These institutions,” Dr. Convit writes, “have functioned as a unified, flexible structure that gives priority to experimental innovations, with the formation of groups of researchers, professors, and supporting health personnel. Activities are carried out through a participatory process, which strengthens strategies to combat endemic diseases”. Never losing sight of whom they are fighting for, the Institute of Biomedicine makes a point of serving the poorest and least developed populations in Venezuela.
His work to develop a leprosy vaccine led into similar work with leishmaniasis. Dr. Convit, a parasitic disease specialist, has also contributed to understanding numerous other conditions plaguing underdeveloped communities (onchocerciasis, mycosis…), and now to cancer. As the Guest Speaker at the 2011 International Conference on Tropical Medicine, the career of Jacinto Convit was described as follows: “His publications are too numerous and his contribution to humanity too hard to quantify.”
Just two years ago, in 2010, admirers of Jacinto Convit again hoped to see him awarded a Nobel Prize, launching an online petition that is still circulating today. Without a doubt, he has attained a great level of international scientific recognition—over 300 scientific papers published, the recipient of 47 Venezuelan degrees and awards and 33 international prizes, including the Prince of Asturias Award and election to the French Legion of Honor—but many of his supporters are bound to be the ordinary Venezuelans, for whom Dr. Convit has accomplished so much.
Find out more:
Leprosy Today, WHO http://www.who.int/lep/en/
Biography of Dr. Jacinto Convit (in Spanish) http://www.biomedicina.org.ve/portal/biografia-dr-jacinto-convit.html Leprosy, WHO Fact Sheet http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs101/en/index.html
The International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations (ILEP) http://www.ilep.org.uk/
3D Molecular Modes, Humanitarian Role Models http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/03/12/3d-molecular-models-humanitarian-role-models.html