March 3, 2004
Susan Beasy Latto, Director of Public Relations (218) 726-8830
Dr. Arthur C. Aufderheide, Professor in the School of Medicine, Duluth (218) 726-7911
UMD Professor Leads Research Team in Discovery
of Chagas Disease in 9,000 Year-old Mummies
The Deadly Parasitic Disease Has been Reported in U.S. Since 1986
Red Cross Expects to Begin Testing Donated Blood for the Disease
A team of researchers led by Dr. Arthur C. Aufderheide of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, Duluth has discovered that Chagas disease, a deadly parasitic blood illness that has drawn recent attention in this country, has infected South and Central Americans for at least 9,000 years.
The Red Cross, alarmed about reports of Chagas disease in the United States, announced last year that it expects to begin testing donated blood for the disease. Seven cases, spread by transfusions, have been reported in the United States and Canada since 1986.
Chagas disease is spread by blood-sucking insects. It is caused by the trypanosome parasite, which burrows into its host's tissue and multiplies. Eventually, the patient's systems are overcome. There is no cure.
Now the University of Minnesota Duluth's (UMD) Dr. Aufderheide and his research team report evidence that the disease infected residents of the coastal Andes mountains as long as 9,000 years ago. But, Dr. Aufderheide is optimistic. He says, "Modern society is trying to find ways to combat diseases without the use of antibiotics. In studying a disease -or lack thereof- in ancient mummies, we may be turned on to a clue that would influence the research done today". He adds, "If we can do it for Chagas, we ought to be able to do it for any other infectious disease".
The team tested 283 mummies and found evidence for the DNA of the parasite that causes the disease on almost 41 percent, they report in the online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The mummies were preserved naturally, dried out in the arid climate of the Andes around what is now Peru. Humans began to populate the area around 7050 B.C., and the team found evidence of the disease in about the same percentage of mummies, regardless of how old they were or the age or sex of the person.
The researchers point out in the paper that the insect-friendly thatch housing widely used in ancient times still is common in the area, allowing Chagas disease to easily perpetuate itself.
For more information:
See Center for Disease Control's Website on Chagas Disease: