Cay Crow: Doctor's STD lab devoted to fighting Trichomoniasis 'monster'

San Antonio Express-News
November 19, 2005

It was the scientifically social event of the season. Ann the Sex Chick, a sex educator who appears monthly on the Lisle & Hahn Show on KISS 99.5, and this AASECT-certified sex therapist and columnist visited the STD lab at the UT Health Science Center. Dr. John Alderete's research team currently is dedicated to the protozoan parasite, Trichomonas vaginalis, which causes the STD Trichomoniasis. (For more on this sexually transmitted infection, refer to my column dated Sept. 24.)

What does an STD lab look like? Well, the smell reminded me of ninth-grade chemistry but there were no dissected creatures lying around. The lab is located down a labyrinth of hallways filled with overflowing file cabinets and refrigerators marked "Biohazard." Space is rather cramped with floor to ceiling equipment, thousands of bottles, glass containers and Petri dishes. Posters of classical musicians cover the walls, as do T-shirts from various universities where Alderete has given talks. Microscopes are tucked in out of the way places.

That is where we met the Trich monster. It is hard to believe that such a small protozoan with no mitochondria can wreak such havoc in the human body. But this little parasite is highly evolved: Once it invades its host, it begins to rearrange cells and interact with genes to a point that it compromises the host's immune system. And once it sets up house, it opens you up to all types of other infections. In fact, current research demonstrates that Trich acts as a type of red carpet, welcoming other sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) by making your immune system more vulnerable to them.

Alderete's team does not limit its conceptualization of Trich to the microscope but retains the broader application of their research to prevention, education and treatment. This comprehensive methodology is what makes Alderete, at least in my eyes, a true citizen scholar.

By the way, Alderete is not your typical armchair scientist who never leaves the lab. His big push is educating health care professionals and the public about STDs. He also believes that researchers, in general, need to have more of a presence in the community at large. This is not a new concept but one developed by Richard Cherwitz, director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program at UT Austin.

Yes, he is a little obsessed with Trich right now, but he also can cover issues related to research, such as microbiology. Alderete welcomes the opportunity to talk with science classes in public schools or professional health organizations. He is one of the few scientists I have met who can explain his work in a way that anyone can understand.

Here's how to reach him: John F. Alderete, Ph.D., Department of Microbiology, MC7758, UTHSCSA, 77003 Floyd Curl Drive, San Antonio, TX 78229-3900. Office: (210) 567-6828; fax: (210) 567-6612; lab: (210) 567-3940; e-mail: