As Cholera Spreads In Yemen, Dartmouth Researchers Seek A Modern Cure

Jun 7, 2017

Modern-day Vermonters may think of cholera as an ancient disease, but researchers at Dartmouth College are still looking for cures. And in war-torn Yemen, cholera is rampant even today. How are local labs connecting to this global issue?

Yemen's cholera outbreak

UNICEF estimates there could be 130,000 cases of cholera in Yemen within the next two weeks.

Juliette Touma, UNICEF's regional chief of communications for the Middle East and Africa, just returned from a trip to Yemen, where there have been nearly 70,000 suspected cases of cholera across the country since the end of April.

Touma says more than 500 people have died of the disease there.

“We went to hospitals, to clinics, to health facilities, met with health workers, met with children, met with mothers and fathers,” she told VPR over the phone from her office in Jordan. “There was this one child that we thought that we were not sure if he was alive or dead ... really harrowing scenes that we shouldn't be witnessing in the 21st century.”

The crisis is expected to worsen in the coming weeks. But in the United States, there are almost no cases of this ancient disease.

A child receives medical care for cholera in Yemen.
Credit UNICEF, courtesy

Dartmouth searches for a cure  

Nestled in the rural town of Hanover, New Hampshire, at the Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, researchers are looking for a cure for the disease.

When you walk into this Geisel lab, researchers want to be sure there is nothing on your person that could be contaminated, because they are experimenting with live strains of cholera bacteria.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year, there are 1.3 to 4 million cases of cholera.

Anne Woodbrey, a Dartmouth graduate student researching cures for cholera, says, “respiratory and diarrheal diseases are the top two killers of children worldwide.”

There are vaccines used to try and prevent cholera, but to date there are no drug cures. That's what Woodbrey is investigating.

“These compounds we've developed, I don't know if they'll specifically be preventative or treatment, that's still kind of up in the air," she said recently, in a lab filled with petri dishes and Bunsen burners. "But there is no cholera drug, it's just flush with oral re-hydration salt and zinc and that's it."

Dartmouth researchers Gabriela Kovacikova and Anne Woodbrey look at petri dishes growing cholera bacterium in their lab.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

A number of labs in the United States are in friendly competition, trying to research a cure – including Harvard and MIT.

So how close is Dartmouth to finding it?

“That's the million dollar question right there – we're certainly on a very good track,” said Woodbrey enthusiastically.

Woodbrey is taking a unique path, looking at ways to turn off the genes that make cholera affect human systems.

“We're going at these bacteria with the idea of not killing them — we're just turning them off," she explained. "If we're not killing the bacteria, then they have less of a reason to mutate and to change against that therapeutic."

Connecting cholera to academic institutions

Yemen isn't the only place where cholera is a modern-day concern.

The largest recent cholera outbreak happened in Haiti in 2010, after an earthquake struck that country's capital of Port-au-Prince.

Dr. Peter Wright was there during the historic cholera outbreak, which ultimately killed thousands of people. At the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, Wright researches infectious diseases in Haiti.

“You go around Haiti and you see people bathing in the river and kids playing in the river, where you know there's cholera there,” Wright described in his office recently.

At a 2013 Dartmouth conference on the cholera crisis in Haiti, Wright called one strategy to tackle the disease "academic capital."

“It’s not money, maybe even not hands and going and doing things, it's, thoughts, ideas, — it's things that can be done to improve health in the developing world,” he says. “I think it's a very powerful concept and one that I'd like to see us more involved in here than we are.”

While cholera shows no sign of relenting in some parts of the world, perhaps there is hope in this exchange.