EMERITI. Whooping cough, meningitis and venereal diseases. Teresa Lagergård has devoted her research life to various bacterial infections, and she believes that the current vaccination debate is a difficult struggle between knowledge and emotion.
People afflicted with chancroid get sores on their genitals that are difficult to heal, which increases the risk of contracting HIV tenfold. At the end of 1980s, little was known about the disease, which spread among poor people in Africa, among other places. Teresa Lagergård, who at that time had returned to the University of Gothenburg after a postdoctoral year in the United States, received money from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to study chancroid in Tanzania and South Africa. The project became one of the most interesting she undertook during more than 30 years as a researcher, she says.
“I went from a relatively privileged life at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Maryland to clinics in Africa, where I met very vulnerable people. Chancroid is the disease of the poor and of prostitutes.”
A new toxin
During her research on the chancroid bacterium Haemophilus ducreyi, Teresa Lagergård made an interesting discovery. Contrary to what was previously thought possible, it turned out that the bacteria produced a DNA-destroying toxin that made the sores difficult to heal.
“Discovering a new toxin was extremely stimulating. The very act of doing so opened new possibilities for developing a vaccine.”
For various reasons, no vaccine against chancroid ever materialized. Among other things, more of those affected got access to antibiotic therapy when the disease was detected. In parallel with her chancroid studies, Teresa Lagergård worked on testing a new American vaccine against whooping cough in a project run by NIH. She was responsible for the study’s serological laboratory in Gothenburg and later also collaborated with NIH on a study about meningitis.
“NIH wanted me to be involved in the projects because they thought I was skilled in the laboratory, which of course was great fun. I’ve always had good fine motor skills for working with my hands, maybe because I learned to play the piano at an early age,” says Teresa.
Medical studies out of the question
The places where she received her childhood piano lessons were Gdansk and Warsaw in Poland, where Teresa grew up. It was primarily her mother who sparked her interest in the natural sciences.
“She taught biology, among other things. I particularly remember that she commented on the Watson-Crick model of how DNA is structured, which was published in 1953 and later won the two scientists the Nobel Prize. She believed that genetics would revolutionize medical science. We talked about things like that at home.”
Two weeks before Teresa received her degree, her mother died of cancer. The fact that doctors could not do anything about the disease provided her with insight into the importance of medical research. Teresa had enough of the hospital environment during her mother’s illness, so medical studies were out of the question. Instead, she studied biology at the University of Warsaw. After graduating in 1969, she began work as a medical microbiologist and published her first scientific work, which dealt with staphylococcal infections. A three-month scholarship to learn more about immunology brought her to the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Gothenburg, where she decided that she wanted to pursue a doctorate.
“Dealing with the Swedish language was tough in the beginning, and I wasn’t especially good at English. In addition, there were three factors working against me within the medical research world: that I was a foreigner, a woman and I had no medical training. I had to work hard, but I also had the support of very talented researchers in both Gothenburg and the U.S.
Driven by curiosity
In 1999 Teresa Lagergård became a professor of vaccination research. Until retirement a few years ago, she managed to produce a large number of scientific articles on various bacterial properties, mechanisms underlying infections, immunology and vaccines. She says her biggest motivating force has been curiosity, and she describes herself as both persistent and impatient at the same time.
“Imagine what a frustrating combination that is for both me and my surroundings,” she says, laughing.
“Persistence is a good quality when you want to develop a new vaccine, but you should also realize when it’s time to stop – that the disadvantages can outweigh the benefits.”
When research on a new vaccine has led all the way to an approved drug, the risk for those who are vaccinated becomes very small, she points out. Infection poses a far greater danger, and there’s no reason to be afraid of tested vaccines, Teresa maintains. But she understands that parents can become uneasy when fallacious rumors are spread, and she is concerned about the low level of knowledge among those who deny their own and other people’s children protection against potentially very dangerous infections.
“Vaccination refusal is all about emotions, especially fear, and can be overcome only with the help of knowledge. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult struggle, and I’ve seen that parents are more positive about vaccines in poorer parts of the world, where the consequences of infectious diseases are more evident.”
In addition to updating a couple of chapters for which she is responsible in the textbook Medicinsk mikrobiologi och immunologi (Medical Microbiology and Immunology), Teresa has left work with infections and vaccinations behind her. Among other things, she now is devoting herself to genealogy and to chronicling her Polish relatives. The large garden around her home in Kullavik also takes up some of her time. But she can’t completely exclude sickness-engendering microbes from her thoughts, she reveals when we go out on the terrace to take a photo.
“When I clear land over there in the wooded glade, I tend to think about the tick-borne borrelia bacteria,” she says, pointing toward the hill where the lawn merges with a natural plot of land.
“Borrelia causes Lyme disease, which is very complex and difficult to research. No one has yet developed a vaccine for humans. But it takes 24 hours before the bacteria are transmitted, so if you inspect yourself and remove any ticks within that time, you don’t need to be afraid.” As they say, with knowledge, we conquer fear.
TEXT AND PHOTO: MALIN AVENIUS/FREELANCE JOURNALIST