UT Health Science Center hosts Fulbright scholar from Argentina who’s working on tuberculosis research

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ivana Alvarez is used to spending 14 hours on a bus traveling from her university in Buenos Aires to her small hometown of Zapala, Argentina.

This summer, she spent the same amount of time traveling a much longer distance, flying from Argentina to Tyler. Ms. Alvarez currently is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

Ms. Alvarez came more than 5,000 miles to work in a laboratory run by Buka Samten, Ph.D., an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at UTHSCT.

She is part of an Argentinean team studying how interferon, which aids the immune system, is produced. Interferon gamma is a key player in the body’s fight against tuberculosis.

“If TB patients could make more interferon gamma, it would improve their immune response,” said Ms. Alvarez, who is known by her middle name, Belén.

That means better outcomes for people with what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls one of the world’s deadliest diseases. Though TB is rare in the United States, it sickened nearly 9 million people around the world in 2010. And it killed 1.4 million people that same year, the CDC says.

The Fulbright International Exchange Program is the most widely recognized and prestigious program of its kind in the world. It began in 1946 and is funded annually by the U.S. government and partner nations. Participants are chosen based on their academic merit and leadership potential.

Fulbright scholarships allow U.S. residents to study, teach, and conduct research abroad. They also enable individuals from other countries to do the same in the United States.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program is providing grants to about 700 foreign scholars from over 100 countries to conduct post-doctoral research at U.S. institutions such as UTHSCT. Twenty-five of these scholars, including Ms. Alvarez, are based in Texas.

Ms. Alvarez is currently working on her Ph.D. at the University of Buenos Aires School of Science. Biologist Verónica García, Ph.D., oversees Alvarez’ research there.

Peter Barnes, MD, professor of microbiology and immunology at UTHSCT, has collaborated with Dr. García’s team to study how the immune system responds to tuberculosis. That joint effort has led to a National Institutes of Health grant to Dr. García, with Dr. Barnes and Dr. Samten serving as collaborators.

“We are delighted that Ms. Alvarez is spending time with us working on a collaborative project between our laboratory and that of Dr. García. Ms. Alvarez is very well trained in cellular immunology, and she has contributed greatly to progress in our work,” Dr. Barnes said.

Dr. Samten said he was very glad to have Ms. Alvarez working on their research into how the human immune system responds to TB infection.

“Belén has not only impressed us with her excellent research skills and hard work, but also enabled us to learn more about scientific research in Argentina. We enjoy the flavor of a different culture that she has brought with her,” he said.

Ms. Alvarez said she is learning specific research techniques that she can share with her colleagues when she returns to Argentina.

“It’s really good to work here because of the state-of-the-art labs,” she added.

And she has enjoyed meeting people from all over the world. “That’s been a really good experience, because we don’t have that diversity in Argentina,” she said. Ms. Alvarez will be at UTHSCT until December; she plans to see some other parts of the United States before returning to her country.

Ms. Alvarez is from the Patagonia region of Argentina, almost 900 miles (1,400 kilometers) south of Buenos Aires. When she left Argentina in June, winter was just beginning there, so the 100 plus degree weather in Tyler was quite a contrast to get used to.

She’s also impressed by the size of everything here.

“Everything is big. I wanted some oil to cook with, and the container I bought was like a gallon. It was hard to find small sizes of things,” Ms. Alvarez said.

But she especially likes how nice people are.

“Everyone says ‘Hi’ when they see you. And they are very willing to help me. That’s really good,” she said.

For more than 60 years, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatment, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, primary care, and the disciplines that support them. UTHSCT’s annual operating budget of $125 million represents a major economic impact of over $287 million to the Northeast Texas region. In FY 2010, scientists in the Center for Biomedical Research were awarded 75 competitive grants and contracts totaling more than $14 million. As the academic health science center for Northeast Texas, its graduate medical education program – with residencies in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities throughout the region and beyond.

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