Faculty voice:

Mohamed Satti: Defending against invaders

Feb. 5, 2020

Mohamed Satti, an assistant professor in the College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health, is an expert in infectious diseases, particularly those caused by parasites. He is one of the professors teaching HM101: An Introduction to Public Health.

My first connection with Michigan State University was in Sudan, Africa, in 1984. As part of my undergraduate studies at the University of Khartoum, we were required to complete a comprehensive graduation project. I chose to work on infectious diseases in the MSU-NIH Sudan Medical Parasitology lab, which was recognized as one of the best labs in the Middle East and Africa. One of the PIs in that lab was Charles Mackenzie, a now-retired MSU professor of veterinary pathology.

Twenty-seven years later, Dr. Mackenzie contacted me and invited me to come to MSU to help with a river blindness project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I joined the MSU Department of Pathology and Diagnostic Investigation in 2011 as a research scientist and also began teaching parasitology courses as part of the online Master of Public Health, or MPH, program. This led to my developing several courses for the MPH program.

Applied research has always been my passion. For example, one focus of my work is zoonotic infections, which are infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans. There are nearly 70 million dogs and more than 150 million cats, owned and unowned, in the United States — two companion animals that can easily continue transmission of zoonotic infections. We cannot control something like this without studying it, to know the degree to which it exists and how it is transmitted. Only then can we interfere and break the cycle.

A unique aspect of my work that I’m most proud of took place during my Ph.D. work in Denmark. I was able to modify a histamine-release test, which was described by a well-known Danish scientist: Dr. Per Stahl Skov.

The studies will allow us to determine which immune responses are helping the patient to resist infection and which ones are helping in the progress of the disease and the pathogenesis. I want to establish a project here that would enable me to do work at MSU using this technique to study some microbial infections of significance in the United States, such as hydatid disease, which is acquired from dogs.

Today, most of my time is spent teaching. I am one of a group of professors teaching HM101: “An Introduction to Public Health.” The course has become very popular as the interest in public health has increased. Several hundred undergraduate students are enrolled each semester.

I believe that research and teaching go hand-in-hand. This enables you to develop yourself and renew yourself. I try, whenever possible, to share with my students my own research experiences. Satisfaction comes from being able to share your knowledge with students and seeing how that affects their lives and makes a difference for them.

I always say, “The best way to learn is through appropriate exposure and the best way to teach is through appropriate interaction with the students.” You need to make sure that everyone listening to you is getting the message that you want to deliver.

The samples I collected as a graduate student in Sudan in 1985 were recently moved to MSU. These samples were collected from patients followed over a very long period of time, before and after treatment with ivermectin and praziquantel for river blindness and bilharzia. My students here at MSU will be able to use these samples to study protective/pathological immune responses to these diseases.

Cytokines and antibodies help the body defend against invaders. While some of them help the body to fight infection, others are part of the pathogenicity of such infection. Our studies are aiming at identifying these responses and giving more insight into the pathways of the protection/pathogenesis of the disease. This could lead to the identification of vaccine candidates.

Public health is all about helping groups and communities. The link between applied work and public health aims at trying to find responses that will help us control infections within populations. The best way to fight infectious diseases is by developing vaccines, which will lead to the development of herd immunity and the interruption of the transmission cycle.

One scientist may not solve the whole problem, but each of us can contribute to the solution. I may see a solution to some of the infectious diseases in my lifetime — or I may not. We are all continuing to work, and we each leave our fingerprint whenever possible.