John SpencerAssociate Professor Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology
My research focus is mainly on the bacterium that causes leprosy in humans, Mycobacterium leprae, for over 20 years. I have been working with leprosy clinicians and researchers in Brazil during this time, writing grants to help fund their surveillance and research activities in schoolchildren and household contacts diagnosed with this disease. Brazil is one of the top 3 countries in the world for new case detection, currently around 25,000 new cases per year, compared to the U.S. that has <200 cases per year. We are trying to develop a simple and rapid test that will help to diagnose cases early so that individuals can be treated before developing nerve damage, disfigurement and disability common with this disease. As a result of my work on leprosy in the Amazon region of Brazil with my collaborators, I received a Fulbright Scholar award to Brazil in 2015-2016. Recently, our group published results showing that leprosy is a zoonotic infection in armadillos in the state of Para in the Brazilian Amazon region and is being transmitted to humans, similar to what has been shown to occur between armadillos and humans in the southern U.S. Understanding the extent of infection in these wild animals and the level of interaction between armadillo and human populations is important to clarify the relative risk that nonhuman reservoirs have in the transmission of this and perhaps other tropical diseases and may help improve strategies to combat leprosy.