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Forest Watchers

Evandro Chagas Institute completes 70 years of researching endemics in the Amazonian region

The Evandro Chagas Institute (IEC), installed in Belém 70 years ago, arose from a routine work of research carried out in Rio de Janeiro. In 1934, Henrique Penna, a researcher from the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, was examining fragments of liver in search of lesions caused by yellow fever when he identified 41 cases of visceral leishmaniasis (or kala-azar).

They were the first case regarded as autochthonous in Brazil. As there was not sufficient knowledge about symptoms and epidemiology, Carlos Chagas, then director of the institute, in Manguinhos, determined that Evandro Chagas should investigate the disease in the areas revealed by Penna, in the northeast and north of the country. Evandro, Carlos Chagas’s son, was 29 years old and was already one of the country’s main researchers in tropical diseases.

It so happens that the death of Carlos Chagas, in the same year, postponed Evandro’s work until February 1936, when he went to Sergipe with the records of the cases of kala-azar diagnosed post-mortem. There, he did the first diagnosis of a living patient. If it is not treated, kala-azar is a fatal disease, endemic in Brazil, which affects other animals besides man.

It is caused by the Leishmania chagasi parasite, transmitted by blood sucking insectss, causing a fever of a long duration, besides other manifestations, with a great increase of the spleen. Evandro Chagas carried out a detailed clinical study of the patient in Sergipe and later described, with Marques da Cunha, a new species of protozoon of the Leishmania genus.

In the same year, the researcher went back to the northeast to visit other focuses of disease in the states of Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Ceará and Piauí. He had the intention of creating a regional laboratory for studying the transmission of leishmaniasis. As he did not achieve support from the state governments visited, he decided to go up to Pará, also with cases described, and convinced the governor, José Carneiro da Gama Malcher, of the importance of having a laboratory concentrating the studies of that region. A rare feat, in a few months, on November 10, 1936, the Experimental Pathology Institute of the North (Ipen in the Portuguese acronym) was created.

The initial objective was to study the regional endemics, such as malaria, filariasis and intestinal verminoses, amongst others.

The first team from the institute led by Evandro, appointed scientific director, came from the School of Medicine and Surgery of Pará, besides a few young physicians from Rio who had passed through Manguinhos.

The researchers penetrated into the Amazon Forest in search of the causal agents of tropical diseases. “The teams would work camped within the forest or in nearby settlements, close to the River Tocantins and the delta of the River Amazon”, recounts Manoel Soares, a physician-researcher at the IEC and a scholar of the institute’s history. “A new world was opening up for us, the world of field researches.

A hard but fascinating world for its taste of adventure and which thrilled us in such a way that it became the environment of the majority of the investigations of several of us for the rest of our lives”, wrote researcher Leônidas Deane about the early years of the IEC. Not by chance, when Evandro died in a plane crash in 1940, 35 years old, Ipen had its name changed to Evandro Chagas Institute, only one month after the tragedy. The IEC’s initial studies unfolded themselves into numerous lines of research.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, kala-azar was in its sights. In the following decades, besides going more deeply into the study of these and other parasitoses, the isolation of several kinds of virus gained prominence in the scientific world and ratified the importance of the institute as a research body with an emphasis on Brazilian Amazonia.

“The IEC is the main producer of knowledge in the area of virology in the Amazon region and one of the most important of the world when arboviroses are concerned – two thirds of the arboviruses known in the world were described there”, witnesses Marcos Boulos, a professor of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of São Paulo and clinical director of the faculty’s Hospital and Clinics.