Inspired by Dr. Livingstone

Prof Mike Barrett
Roy Mwenechanya

Roy Mwenechanya, a University of Glasgow PhD student within the Wellcome Trust Centre,  is  one of 10 children, born in the copper mining town of Kitwe  around 400km north of the Zambian capital, Lusaka.  As a child, Roy, like others in his class was taught about Dr Livingstone, the Scottish missionary explorer who devoted his life to an effort to abolish the slave trade. Livingstone’s adventures thrilled the young Mwenechanya. He was determined to win a scholarship to bring him to Glasgow, where Livingstone himself had read medicine in the mid-nineteenth century.

Roy will next month attend a symposium being held in the Bute Hall to celebrate the 200th anniversary of David Livingstone’s birth. The symposium, which is part of the David Livingstone 200 celebrations being organised by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology, will be addressed by international experts from the World Health Organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, St George’s University of London as well as leading parasitologists from the University of Glasgow. Glasgow remains one of the world’s leading Centres for the study of tropical diseases today.

Asked about his ambition to study at Glasgow, Roy replied: “I wanted to come to Glasgow to find out why Dr Livingstone wanted to come all the way to Africa to fight diseases that were not even present in Scotland.  Livingstone was accepted by the people in Africa despite the ills of slavery at the time, and was treated differently. He spoke out against the slave trade. He also tried to help Africans by introducing new methods of agriculture and introducing novel ideas in medicine.  Like me, Livingstone came from a humble background.  Yet through his dedicated hard work he made a difference.  Our former President, Kenneth Kaunda, described Livingstone as Africa’s first freedom fighter. It is a great inspiration to any of us to realise that with hard work and determination anyone can change the world. ”

Dr Livingstone made three separate expeditions to Africa in his lifetime. Between 1841 and 1873 he travelled some 30,000 miles, mainly on foot, through jungle, desert and swamp. Along the way, he discovered peoples, animals, lakes and waterways (including Victoria Falls) and vast areas of previously uncharted land. It was, however, his Christian faith, desire to rid Africa of slavery and his description of the natural fauna and flora of Africa and particularly his depictions of tropical diseases for which he will be best remembered. And it is his contributions to understanding tropical diseases which the symposium will remember.

He identified the tsetse fly as the agent that transmitted a disease we now know to be trypanosomiasis (also called sleeping sickness when the parasites afflict man). He introduced the use of arsenic to treat the disease, although the microbial cause was not then known. Arsenical drugs are still used to treat humans today.

Without treatment, sleeping sickness is fatal. The parasites, trypanosomes, proliferate in the blood and the lymphatic systems before invading the brain. They cause a progressive breakdown of neurological function and usually change in sleep patterns.

Mwenechanya’s PhD thesis has involved trying to understand how trypanosomes and related parasites become resistant to drugs. He is using state of the art technologies to dissect the precise molecular  details of the  parasite’s make up.  By then comparing the inner workings of parasites that are resistant to drugs to those that are sensitive, the mechanisms that cause resistance can be identified.  This information can then help design new drugs that bypass the resistance mechanisms allowing us to kill the parasites once again.

“Understanding drug resistance will help reduce treatment failure rates that may be due to it [drug resistance].  I am trying to equip myself with the techniques and qualifications that can assist me in looking more closely at the issues that affect my people. My approach to tackling poverty is that you have to start with the health of the people. Education is a cardinal aspect to this. If you educate people they will take health seriously and will look after themselves: that is what Livingstone believed.”

In many respects, Dr Livingstone can be considered the father of Scottish Parasitology. It was under his influence that a generation of young Scottish medics set off for Africa in the hope of building a better, healthier world. A distant relative of Livingstone, Patrick Manson, showed how mosquitoes transmit the worms that cause the disease elephantiasis, a grotesque disease which in its severest cases leads to great swelling of arms, legs and sometimes huge enlargement of the scrotum.  Manson persuaded Major Ronald Ross to study malaria and Ross showed the parasites that cause this disease were also transmitted by mosquitoes. Other prominent Scots in the field include Major David Bruce and George Carmichael Low, who made significant inroads in the study of trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness. Muriel Robertson, from Glasgow, was one of few women involved in early research into tropical medicine and she too made  her mark in the study of sleeping sickness. She eventually moved to Uganda, where she learned more about the complex developmental cycles of the parasites that cause the disease. Another Glaswegian, William Leishman, identified parasites that are very similar to trypanosomes in patients suffering from kala azar in India. These parasites are now called Leishmania and the diseases they cause, afflicting millions in tropical and subtropical parts of the world, are still known as the Leishmaniases.

In short Scotland’s contribution to parasitology and tropical medicine has been immense.  The University has today more Professors of Parasitology than any other institution in the world.  Scottish parasitologists were central in establishing the genome sequence of the trypanosome and other parasites and have revealed the presence of numerous potential targets for drugs in fighting sleeping sickness.

Prof Mike Barrett, the organiser of the David Livingstone Symposium and Roy’s PhD supervisor, said: “Roy is a shining example of how the University of Glasgow and in particular the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology, in collaboration with African scientists, is following in David Livingstone’s footsteps in advancing research into parasitic diseases”.