Leprosy in Louisiana

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, March 12th. We’re glad you’ve turned to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: An unusual type of research.

Many universities encourage excellence outside of the traditional classroom through research. Students can gain experience, and schools earn prestige and extra funding.

REICHARD: These projects have accomplished a lot:  from finding an effective treatment for sickle-cell anemia to confirming the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls

WORLD reporter Kim Henderson takes us now to a school in the South that’s focused on fighting a specific diseaseleprosy. Here’s the story.


KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: On January 13th, the Louisiana State University football team won the national championship. 

It’s not unusual for the LSU Tigers to get attention on the field, but it’s the school’s nine-banded armadillos that post victories of scientific consequence.

That’s right. Just a few “Joe Burrow” passes away from Tiger Stadium, researchers care for more than a hundred armadillos. Microbiologist Maria Pena explains why.

PENA: The mom will give birth to four identical twins or identical siblings. So they’re genetically the same. So, eh, and that’s great for research because you know, sometimes you put some animals in one group, the other in another group. So the only difference that you get is a treatment. So that’s excellent. 

The National Hansen’s Disease Programs laboratory is located at LSU, where they maintain the only armadillo colony in the world. Hansen’s disease is another name for leprosy.

Visitors milling around the courtyard at LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine might be surprised to find out what researchers are studying upstairs. 

The lab chief is Linda Adams, a petite, carefully spoken woman with long hair and blue eyes. She says Hansen’s disease has never been easy to study.  

ADAMS: The thing about the leprosy bacterium, you cannot grow it in the lab. It can’t be, it will not grow on a Petri dish. It doesn’t have the genes necessary to grow independently. It has to be grown in an animal model. We have no choice. 

So finding an animal that could be infected and used for research was a top goal for decades. In this case, temperature was key. 

ADAMS: Most mammals have a body temperature of 37 degrees centigrade. That’s the same as 98.6 Fahrenheit. Armadillos have a core body temperature of about 33 to 34. It’s cool. And the leprosy bacterium likes the cool areas. That’s why, you know, it affects the skin and the mucous membranes. These are cooler areas of the body. So it is a very good host. We can, uh, grow tremendous numbers of bacteria in the armadillo.  

Three scientists and nine technicians make up the program’s staff. They include biologists and immunologists, and new citizens from Argentina and India. 

ADAMS: This is our core lab. We do a variety of things in here, primarily our molecular biology…

One woman is wearing a white lab coat. She’s preparing tissue samples for special staining that will allow visualization of the leprosy bacteria. In another room, two technicians wearing disposable garb have their hands beneath the hood of a biological safety cabinet. They’re performing tests to see if a new drug has killed the bacteria.  

For Adams, the space—with its climate controls, whirring machines, and  camera/microscope combos —is a draw. 

ADAMS: I knew I wanted to work in the lab since I was a child. I loved science, but I never thought I would be doing leprosy research. 

And she acknowledges their program isn’t a fit for all scientists.  

ADAMS: It takes a special personality to do this sort of work just because our experiments can sometimes take a one or two years to run. So it takes a special kind of person to have that sort of patience. Um, you’re not going to get a publication every month if you come and do this type of work. 

In 2011, the Hansen’s Disease Center research team verified a theory long suspected by locals: 

NEWSCASTER: Doctors say they’re 99 percent sure that the patient contracted the disease while making contact with an armadillo on a hunting trip.

Hansen’s disease occurs naturally among some free-ranging armadillos, the kind you find in wooded areas of southern coastal states. Establishing a possible human-to-armadillo contact link was significant.

The laboratory maintains a ready supply of M. leprae bacilli for researchers worldwide, but they’re also doing other studies with their colony. Armadillos can live up to 15 years. That’s long enough for the slow-manifesting effects of Hansen’s disease to emerge. 

ADAMS: They actually develop the disease, and they get the nerve infection. And that’s what causes the damage in most patients. Bacteria infects the nerve and damages the nerves, and that’s what causes the disabilities.

The scientists are constantly testing new drug therapies on the animals.

ADAMS: There are various antibiotics that are being tested for tuberculosis, and TB bacterium and the leprosy bacterium are closely related. So we’re looking at some of those compounds to see if they also work for leprosy.

Much of the research at LSU now is focused on figuring out how Hansen’s disease is transmitted. Staff also published results last year from important trials…for a vaccine.

ADAMS: How it’s going to be actually administered is still a question. Um, leprosy is a rare disease, so there’s a question of who, who would you vaccinate? Everyone? Contacts? Patients who already have leprosy? So, uh, these things are still not fully decided. But if we could treat someone who already has the disease and actually improve and shorten treatment, that would be beneficial. 

Leprosy is rare in the United States, but globally there were more than 200,000 new cases reported in 2018. That means developing a vaccine would be a real breakthrough.

For WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

REICHARD: To read more about the connection between Louisiana and leprosy, you can look for Kim’s story in the upcoming issue of WORLD Magazine.

(Photo/Kim Henderson)

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