Studying leishmaniasis – a parasitic disease that affects populations in tropical climates – has special meaning for University of Iowa doctoral student Jason Weirather.
Leishmaniasis is caused by infection with Leishmania parasites, which are spread by the bite of infected sand flies. Cutaneous leishmaniasis can cause skin sores in some people, while visceral leishmaniasis affects some of the body’s internal organs such as the spleen, liver, and bone marrow.
United States soldiers fighting in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been afflicted with the disease. Weirather served as an Army medic in Iraq in 2005-06, so he has seen the disease’s impact first hand.
Weirather, a Ph.D. candidate in genetics, works in Professor Mary Wilson’s laboratory and is working to gain an understanding of genetic differences between people who are able to self-cure leishmaniasis and others who develop serious and sometimes fatal illnesses. "For somewhat elusive reasons, most infected people cure the disease without developing symptoms, whereas others go on to develop either a local or a widely spread form of symptomatic leishmaniasis,” Weirather said. “We are investigating genetic differences between individuals exposed to visceral leishmaniasis in northeast Brazil.”
Weirather finds time to develop his instructional skills outside of the typical academic setting by teaching judo and Sunday school classes.