While Rashidul Haque carries out research in the slums of Bangladesh, Jan ter Meulen has been facing different problems in the small West African nation of Guinea. An attack by rebels from neighboring Sierra Leone forced many of ter Meulen’s staff members to flee their town. Even now, with calm restored, refugee camps are filled with people whose arms were chopped off.
Ter Meulen, a German citizen and HHMI international research scholar, says the turmoil adds to the "tremendous logistical problems" he already faces in his studies of the human immune response to Lassa virus. This virus infects an estimated half-million people in the region annually, causing everything from flu symptoms to death. One in six patients suffers permanent hearing loss from Lassa fever, which is a cousin to other viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.
"Almost everything has to be imported for our research," ter Meulen explains, who adds that refrigeration is erratic, roads are unpaved and educated workers are scarce. Not long ago, electricity spikes destroyed two sophisticated PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines.
Yet, because Lassa fever occurs only in West Africa, ter Meulen remains in the Guinean capital, Conakry, returning to Germany occasionally to carry out more sophisticated experiments at his home base, the University of Marburg. His research is thriving as he uses new biological techniques to reveal how the human immune system recognizes and fights Lassa fever at the molecular level, work he hopes will lead to a recombinant vaccine.
"I have the unique opportunity to bring together field work and state-of-the-art molecular biology," he says. "The work in Conakry gives me access to patients who survived Lassa, which is a great advantage over studying the disease in animal models."
Fellow scientists in Germany and other developed countries often regard his work as "strange and exotic," ter Meulen acknowledges. "It's nearly impossible to build a career as a young scientist on field research on tropical diseases unless you already have a permanent position. Few scientific institutions are interested in researchers working on 'exotic' diseases, except if there are interesting molecular aspects. Money for applied research is hard to get because the diseases do not play a role in the Western world, and the affected countries have no buying power."
But ter Meulen has no plans to leave his tropical laboratory. He says he is intrigued by his work and grateful for the perspective that his stay in Africa has given him. Moreover, his commitment is paying off. One of his recent scientific papers, in the March 2000 Journal of Virology, described for the first time how human T cells respond to Lassa virus. And lately, ter Meulen has been receiving repeated invitations to "give talks on my exotic subject."
"I've always enjoyed traveling and working in a developing country," he says, "and I'm lucky that the woman I've been together with for almost seven years also doesn't want to settle down. We both enjoy the freedom and privilege of being able to regularly change our environment and our perspectives." DJ
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
December 2001, pages 22-25.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute