November 22, 2019

Faces of Innovation: Dr. Peter Hotez, researcher at Baylor College of Medicine

Emily Conron
Policy and Advocacy Officer

Faces of Innovation—a new GHTC project that features scientists on the front lines of research and development on new global health tools and technologies—profiles Dr. Peter Hotez, who we met at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Annual Conference, who does research to develop vaccines for neglected tropical diseases as professor and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. 

My name: Peter Hotez, MD, PhD

Where I work: National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas

I’m funded by: National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense

My research: At the National School of Tropical Medicine, we established what’s called the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, which is a non-profit—what’s sometimes called a product development partnership, a PDP. These are non-profit agencies that use industry practices to make stuff—in our case, it’s vaccines. So we’re making vaccines for neglected tropical diseases, the most common afflictions of the world’s poor. We have vaccines for hookworm and schistosomiasis in clinical trials now, and hopefully soon a new Chagas vaccine will go into the clinic. This is co-directed by myself and my science partner for twenty years, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi. We like to say that we develop the vaccines that no one else will make. 

Motivation: I have an unusual story in that ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to study tropical diseases. And then I went to Yale as an undergraduate specifically to work at a lab on African sleeping sickness, and then I did the MD-PhD program at Rockefeller-Cornell, the medical scientist training program, where I got started on developing a hookworm vaccine in the laboratory of Anthony Cerami, who let me bring hookworms into the lab. So, this is a lifelong passion and calling, and I think you’ll find that for a lot of researchers, especially here at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Why federal support is critical: In terms of federal agencies that support us, we have support, of course, from the NIH, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which has been a stalwart supporter of our vaccine development program, but also, the Department of Defense is now supporting our leishmaniasis vaccine program through CDMRP [Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program]. We’re extremely grateful for our federal support. We’d be nowhere without it.

…[From] 2015-2016, I was in the Obama Administration—I served as US Science Envoy. There’s a few things going on with that. One, in one of my books, Blue Marble Health, we found that most of the world’s poverty-related neglected diseases are not necessarily in the poorest, most devastated countries of Africa and Asia as many people think, but actually, it’s the poor living among the wealthy in G20 countries, the Group of 20 countries. So, for instance, we now estimate that there are 12 million Americans living in extreme poverty with a neglected tropical disease. [Research] on these diseases is not only helping people abroad, it’s actually helping the poorest Americans. So that’s a very important aspect. Another is—I think in my time as US Science Envoy, one of the things that I kept on seeing is the admiration for America, not because of our military prowess, but because of our research universities and our research institutes. This is why people love America: We’re a science horsepower; the fact that we use our science towards bettering the world, developing new technologies for global health. This is one of the things that makes America great—this is what I tell policymakers and leaders on both sides of the aisle.

When I’m not in the lab: One of the things that’s my new passion is—I’ve become a writer. Since moving to Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, I’ve written and published three books, and now about to work on my fourth. So, writing has become a new passion of mine, and it reaches a different audience than scientific papers. It helps to explain why science is important and do that public engagement, and that’s so critical, especially in this time now when we’re seeing this rise in anti-science, anti-vaccine movements. More than ever, we need to do public engagement. That’s why GHTC is so important. It’s a key component of that public engagement.