François-Xavier Weill is one of those rare truly interdisciplinary researchers: one part Microbiologist, one part Historian and one part Epidemiologist.
His work mainly focuses on the evolution, emergence and detection of new strains of enteric pathogens (which basically includes the nastier versions of Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio and E. coli) around the different human populations on Earth…so that we can better understand how, when and why enteric diseases spread.
Of particular interest to our research, was François-Xavier’s focus for several years on the epidemiological mapping of large numbers of different Shigella species around the globe over the 100-odd years. This (currently) unpublished research specifically shows which Shigella species were prevalent during WWI and suggests how they might have moved around the globe during the war. We’ll link to the article highlighting this amazing body of work when it appears in late 2015!
Briony, Ailsa and I travelled out to Cambridge (UK) to meet with François-Xavier in his home...stopping to admire the punts along the river Cam.
In our highly caffeinated meeting, our discussions included:
- the role of nutrition in affecting the acidity of the stomach – lowering the defenses of soldiers and nurses to dysentery;
- the high similarity between E. coli and Shigella (something Kat Holt had also mentioned) – Shigella is essentially a weaponised E. coli, adapted to infect and rapidly multiply in humans;
- the change from Shigella dysenteriae to Shigella flexneri with improved hygiene, corresponding with the modern understanding of how S. dysenteriae wreaked havoc in the god-awful conditions in Gallipoli to the lesser incidence of S. flexneri in the much improved (and less tropical) trenches on the Western Front;
- how the identity of the dysentery-causing agents were strongly contested in the early 20th century – with many scientists insisting that amoebic dysentery (caused by the amoeba Entamoeba histolytica) was the only significant disease;
- how the high morbidity of bacillary dysentery (that is, dysentery caused by the Shigella bacillus) created such a high burden to the resourcing of the war, considering the need for intensive nursing of each infected soldier over a period of several days to weeks;
- the difficulty in studying dysentery, given that there are no animal models – that is, disease-causing Shigella only infect humans – and it’s never easy to experiment on humans…
- and finally what sensitive creatures Shigella really are, especially outside of their niche in the large intestine!
François-Xavier also made the interesting suggestion that we consider using Shigella dysenteriae type 1 as the anti-hero in our story, due to its ability to make the deadly Shiga toxin…although this presents other new difficulties to our current storyline!