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Cuts to Science Budget in Argentina Endanger Work on Promising Toxoplasmosis Vaccine

 

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Vanesa Sánchez is a scientist who has worked on research for a vaccine for toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that infects a significant portion of the world's population. The condition is largely undetected, but when symptoms appear they can be fatal. Sánchez says her research is stalled because of government budget cuts. Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
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Since 2004, Argentina's science council has consistently raised the number of researchers hired annually, but the past two years have witnessed a 50-percent drop in annual hiring. The budget cuts have sparked two sit-ins and other demonstrations, as well as uncertainty among scientists and the threat of a brain drain. The previous investment in science had helped markedly to develop a promising vaccine against toxoplasmosis, a dangerous parasite infecting half of all pregnant women in Buenos Aires province.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — At least twice in the last 15 months, scientists here have transformed themselves into activists and engaged in the one of the most time-honored of protests: the sit-in.

It happened in December 2016 and again in September 2017, the latter protest lasting for eight days. Mattresses, blankets, backpacks, water jugs and boxes of food piled up in the hallway of the government’s science ministry. Outside, lounging in a circle on a sidewalk, dozens of scientists from different parts of the country waited for the government to agree to negotiate with them. The protests have continued – as recently as January, scientists held demonstrations in public places.

They were fighting for their jobs but also for something more: the future of research that could cure a serious disease infecting half of all pregnant women in the province of Buenos Aires and 30 percent of the world’s population, if not more, according to some estimates.

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Scientists and researchers protest budget cuts that severely slash the number of government-funded researcher jobs. The protest shown here happened in September 2017. Other protests have occurred continually, often with scientists wearing gloves to echo what happened during similar budget cuts in 1994, when then-Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo told a scientist that she should go "wash the dishes."

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Toxoplasmosis largely goes undetected, but when symptoms appear, they can be severe, causing eye problems, brain damage or organ failure. Recent studies have shown that toxoplasmosis, a parasite, is linked to conditions including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. It’s contracted through contact with poorly washed food or poorly cooked meat and through contact with fecal matter from infected cats.

Argentine scientists, struggling to contain the disease not only for the sake of other Argentines but for people everywhere, have developed a promising vaccine that reduces the average parasitic burden in mice by 50 percent.

They hope to reach 90-percent efficacy, but much of that research is now stalled because of budget cuts.

The vaccine could not only prevent toxoplasmosis but also slow neurological damage in patients who have the parasite, researchers say.

“They focus all the resources on the acute state,” says Ana Lis López García, a neurosurgeon who works with children born with toxoplasmosis. “I don’t know another research group that is doing this, and it would be good for us to research it because of the high incidence we have. We should be interested in this as a country.”

The number of researchers and scientists hired by the state’s science council has dropped by more than half in recent years, down from 930 new researchers hired in 2015 to 455 new researchers hired in 2017.

Before that, the number of researchers starting government careers had been on the rise since at least 2004, when 400 people were hired, according to data from Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, the national science council known widely as CONICET. That agency promotes and conducts scientific research. By comparison, in 1997 just 125 researchers took new government jobs in the council. The government has repeatedly prioritized scientific research since then, creating a stable environment in which experts were able to develop the vaccine.

A review of CONICET’s budget shows that these cuts were a few years coming. According to a report published by Fernando D. Stefani, vice director of a CONICET research center, the CONICET budget dropped slightly in 2015. By 2016, the budget had declined to the level of spending in 2012. The current budget will fall below the one used in 2011.

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Scientists protest at a sit-in in September 2017 at the Argentine government's science ministry. The sit-in lasted eight days.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

The government, Stefani and others estimated that about 500 researchers who were selected for careers at CONICET won’t have jobs at the agency under the current budget.

It’s the first time since the end of the 1990s, a period of serious economic downturn, that researchers tabbed to get government jobs didn’t start their careers with CONICET, says Guadalupe Maradei, who works with the Red Federal de Afectadxs del CONICET, which represents scientists who were fired from the council.

It was in the 1990s that many scientists and researchers fled Argentina to countries with more funding for scientific inquiry, although many had left before then to escape the country’s dictatorship. The government has since created programs to bring those scientists back (read our story here), but Maradei worries that this shrunken science budget will spark another brain drain.

Maradei’s organization negotiated with the government to find positions for the experts fired from the council, including 47 who got posts at CONICET through that negotiation process. Nearly 400 found work at universities, she says. The rest found other types of work, but some left the country – the very result the government says it hopes to avoid.

Global Press Journal attempted to communicate with CONICET officials via phone and email more than 30 times, but the agency did not respond to those requests.

Vanesa Sánchez, a biotechnology and molecular-biology researcher who focuses on the toxoplasmosis vaccine, is among the scientists who expected to work for the government. She had a double recommendation for a CONICET job and was sure that she’d secured a position there, she says.

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Vanesa Sánchez researches vaccines for toxoplasmosis in a laboratory in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

But she found out in early 2017 that budget cuts had eliminated that position.

Sánchez now works full-time at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, where she once worked part-time. She’s thankful for the job, but she says she earns 30 percent less than she would have at CONICET, and she’s required to spend 50 percent of her time teaching.

She’s also without CONICET subsidies and other funding sources that finance research, she says, so she can’t guarantee that she’ll be able to build on her scientific advances.

“We are trying to provide external services to get money for research. It’s a constant hindrance to the research. We are going to progress very slowly in relation to what we would have been able to advance with the support of CONICET,” she says.

Valentina Martin works with Sánchez at a laboratory on toxoplasmosis research. Losing a researcher has serious consequences, she says.

“The consequences for the laboratory would be not only to leave this line of research truncated but also lose the contributions of a professional who specializes in the subject,” Martin says.

A successful vaccine could dramatically change life for Argentines.

Gabriela Yael Albarenque’s infant daughter, Catalina, has hydrocephalus – fluid retention in her brain – as a result of congenital toxoplasmosis. The baby has had five surgeries on her head, in part because her brain is smaller than it should be, Yael Albarenque says. Catalina has partial paralysis in her arms and legs, among other symptoms.

A toxoplasmosis vaccine could have averted all of these problems. And even now, as Catalina suffers from the disease, a vaccine could slow the neurological damage that the parasite produces in the long term, Sánchez says.

“What children and their whole families suffer is terrible,” Yael Albarenque says.

Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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