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Researcher Highlight Q&A: Eric Houpt, MD, Studies Our Microbial World

Eric Houpt, MD, first came to UVA Health as a fellow in infectious diseases in 1999. Since then, Houpt has risen through the ranks, and is now chief of the division of infectious diseases and international health.

Houpt's lab focuses on developing accurate and quick diagnostic tests. This includes PCR-based tests to detect pathogens and rapid tests for tuberculosis. Learn more about the work going on at Houpt's research lab.

Accurate diagnostic tests make it easier to identify the best treatment options. And quick tests make it easier to treat illnesses early, when there's the best chance for good outcomes.

Houpt's research team also focuses on international research. Understanding the diseases responsible for things like childhood diarrhea improves treatment options. This research has led to international recognition and awards. See Houpt's publications here, and read on to learn what made Houpt pursue these research interests and why it matters.

What are you working on right now?  

I am working on childhood diarrhea, particularly a bacterial infection named Shigella. This bacteria is the second leading cause of child diarrhea around the world, after rotavirus, and there are plans to evaluate Shigella vaccines. 

So we are assisting with those efforts by deploying diagnostic tests to document whether Shigella is a common enough problem to make the cut for a global vaccine. Shigella encompasses a broad number of species and types, so the upcoming vaccines will only be able to target a subset of these. Our diagnostics are also clarifying how common the different species and types are.

Second, I am working on a project to determine the major causes of fever in a study in Tanzania. About one-third of patients, including children, coming to hospital in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa have a fever. These are mostly from infection, but the cause is usually undetermined. It’s not as easy as it sounds; detecting infections requires careful laboratory testing. Our group makes and uses precise diagnostic tools to try to identify and enumerate the causes.

What are the most intriguing potential clinical applications of your work?  

Our work is very practical. First, make and apply the best diagnostic tools to evaluate the case for a global Shigella vaccine. Second, detect the commonest causes of fever presenting for care in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not all malaria. Once we learn the causes, we can then think about how to better treat them. But knowing the causes has to come first.

What made you choose UVA Health as the place to do your research?  

UVA Health has been my home. This has been my only job as a physician. I love the small-sized town and the warmth and collegiality.

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research? 

One of the hardest things for people to understand is that not every infection equals disease. I can see how it is easy to think the world is sterile, but we live in a microbial world. Normal human life means being covered and colonized with organisms — skin, mouth, respiratory tract, GI tract, GU tract, you name it. Of course, sometimes infections need to be treated, but sometimes not. This is sometimes hard for patients to accept.

How did you become interested in your area of research? 

I majored in Asian studies in college and have been able to spend a lot of time abroad throughout my life — India, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Tanzania, and other places. This has fueled my interest in global health and tropical infections. UVA Health has always been one of the top places in the world for global health research, so it was a natural fit to come here and stay here.

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