A Scottish encounter with tropical diseases

By Russell Stothard,

I was delighted to be asked to speak at a symposium which formed part of the public engagement activities of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology (WTCMP), at the University of Glasgow. There were nine speakers and just over 245 people attended, bringing together a wide audience, from interested sixth form students to keen emeritus professors, all wishing to learn something new about tropical parasites and their associated diseases. If you were unable to attend you can catch up on conversations on Twitter using #GlasgowNTD. Manuscripts inspired from this meeting will form a special issue of the Cambridge University Press journal Parasitology.

Just over 100 years ago R.T Leiper (1881-1969), an alumnus of the University of Glasgow, clarified and revealed key aspects of the schistosome lifecycle. Today, it is still important to remember and promote his special contribution, and those of others, in advancing disease control and alleviation of the suffering of millions throughout the world. Indeed, there is a grand heritage and tradition of pioneering Scots in parasitology and tropical medicine, David Livingstone (1813-1873) and Patrick Manson (1844-1922) to name but a few. They were each introduced to us by Frank Cox (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) who went on to describe the ‘golden age’ of parasitology, to set the scene for this meeting.

Leiper’s contribution to and influence on helminthology (the study of worms) has been truly immense. His research in China, Japan and Egypt during 1914-1916, enabled him to devise simple measures of control of schistosomiasis. For example, he devised and established water hygiene measures then relevant to disease control in British troops stationed in Egypt. Even today, more detailed study of these measures form key topics in COUNTDOWN’s research agenda. Other speakers addressing aspects of contemporary schistosomiasis control included Alan Fenwick (Imperial College London) who highlighted problems in the scale-up of praziquantel treatment and drew attention to current intervention gaps: poor access to treatment beyond school-aged children, a lack of focus on female genital schistosomiasis and weak health systems.

2015 marked 150 years since the birth of W. B. Leishman (1865-1926), another influential parasitologist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Leishman described parasites in a patient with ‘Dum Dum’ fever which was to become later known as leishmaniasis as caused by the protozoan parasite Leishmania donovani. Mike Barrett (WTCMP) explained that during WW1 Leishman also pioneered the use of vaccines against typhoid-fevers, saving thousands of lives in the British forces, lives that would have been otherwise lost to disease like their enemy counterparts who had no effective vaccination programme. In terms of available treatments for this disease, Jorge Alvar (DNDi) drew attention to today’s drug armamentarium and the importance of developing effective alternatives. All important issues especially given the havoc that this disease is now causing in Syria.

The third person to be remembered at the symposium was Muriel Roberston (1883-1973) who was influential in the creation of the British Section of the Society of Protozoologists. She played a key role describing aspects of the lifecyle of African trypanosomiasis, another tremendously important neglected tropical disease. As discussed by Tansy Hammarton, WTCMP, this NTD is caused by Trypanosoma brucei and the biology of which has been a longstanding research theme of the WTCMP. Robertson’s early contributions in revealing its lifecycle, and her other pioneering research using the microscope, is even more remarkable when placed within a male-dominated society. Tansy highlighted Roberston’s quote when asked what it was like working in Uganda “…it compares nothing to suffering one has to endure upon the horror of the modern cocktail party”.

There was ample time for general questions at the end of the meeting. The most pertinent of which from a local sixth-form teacher who was leading a group of her students “How can you work towards a career in tropical medicine?” No doubt this was firmly inspired John Kusel’s (University of Glasgow) presentation where he demonstrated fluorescent microscopy and his joy in its application leading to several discoveries in the biology of schistosomes. John mentioned that to advance scientific and medical research we often stand upon the shoulders of scientists, like Leiper, Leishman and Robertson, but harness our human creativity which bridges science, art and religion. In closing the meeting, Mike Barrett’s answer and final words were particularly guiding for we had clearly achieved our goal, perhaps best summed by Tennyson “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s