I received a flexible funding award to finance a visit to the Mycetoma Research Centre in Khartoum, Sudan. The visit coincided with the centre hosting ‘The First International Training Workshop on Mycetoma’ followed by ‘The Sixth International Conference on Mycetoma’, both of which I and my supervisors attended.
My PhD project is focused on isolating and identifying specialised metabolites produced by pathogenic Actinobacteria species and elucidating how these metabolites may interact with the human immune system to cause a disease called mycetoma. This disease is classified by the WHO as a neglected tropical disease and presents as chronic and debilitating tumour-like growths on various body parts, usually limbs. The Mycetoma Research Centre in Khartoum is the only institution in the world devoted to treating and studying mycetoma, hence my supervisors and I felt that a visit to the centre could provide us with unique, clinically-based insights into the condition.
Our time in Sudan began with a 5-day training workshop themed around diagnosing and treating the disease. Not being from a clinical background, these sessions really opened my mind up to thinking about the curious features of mycetoma from new angles, such as viewing the illness from a “whole organism” perspective as clinicians do, in addition to the purely cellular level of microbiologists. One of the most memorable experiences came from the workshop, when we were invited to look round the Mycetoma Research Centre lab and clinic and meet actual patients.
One patient in particular who stuck in my mind was a 10-year old boy who, following a surgical intervention, was experiencing a recurrence of the infection, which had seriously deformed his foot and greatly restricted his mobility. Seeing the debilitating impact of the disease in person, as well as learning about the harsh economic realities of the lives of many of the patients, was a very sobering experience and caused me to reflect on the wider impact of my research. And as clichéd as it may be to say, you also couldn’t help but think about how privileged so many of us are to have access to extensive medical care and high quality of life just by the luck of the place of our birth. That being said, it was also incredibly inspiring to see the quality of the facility that the staff at the research centre had built up over the last 28 years. Professor Ahmed Fahal leads the centre and the commitment he and his remarkable team show to ensuring the best outcome for patients, not only during their treatment but also in the years following, was highly admirable and deserving of far more recognition than they receive.
Following the conclusion of the workshop, the conference itself began, with attendees from an estimated 35 countries present. The first day revolved around talks on the occurrence and burden of mycetoma across each continent, as well as discussions on how best to report the disease in clinics and how to construct an early form of a global mycetoma registry. Scientific talks began on the second day and I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak by the organisers. Sharing my research with others in that forum led to lively discussions regarding collaborations with others based in UK labs, which could greatly enhance my project work. From other talks during the day, I was also able to learn more regarding what is currently known about a mycetoma infection’s interactions with the host immune system and what in vivo infection models are available and how they are used. So overall, the conference was a very worthwhile and engaging experience.
We did also have some free days during our time away and we used these to explore Khartoum and the surrounding regions of Sudan. An absolute highlight was a trip to the pyramids, of which Sudan actually has more of than Egypt! They are amazing structures, not generally visited by many tourists and so we were lucky enough to have the site near enough to ourselves. The people of Sudan were also so welcoming and friendly and we were left with overwhelmingly positive impressions of the country.
I’d like to end by saying a massive thank you to Professor Fahal and his team at the Mycetoma Research Centre for being such excellent hosts during our time in Sudan and to the MRC for awarding me the funds that allowed me make this trip.