I have had the pleasure of hosting two toxicologists of African origin through the Society of Toxicology (SOT) Global Senior Scholar Exchange Program (GSSEP), Dr. Mohamed Salama from Mansoura University, Egypt, in 2013, and Dr. Wafa Hassen from Tunisia in 2016. During their visits to my laboratory, they interacted with toxicologists from Duke University and from other toxicology laboratories in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, including the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). Their visits were followed up by my visiting their institutions in their homeland. I traveled to Dr. Salama’s Mansoura University in Egypt in 2013. In 2017, I was delighted to visit Tunisia because, although I was born in Africa (Egypt), I had never been in another African country. This visit was an opportunity to interact with toxicologists from another African country and develop a collaborative program with Tunisian toxicologists. Prior to my trip, and with the help of Dr. Hassen, I educated myself about Tunisia.
My July 9–15, 2017, visit to Tunisia, was extremely fruitful and resulted in positive results that should be of great benefit to toxicological studies in Tunisia, especially among the young scientists. Dr. Hassen, who is currently doing research in another laboratory at Duke, was not able to be in Tunisia during my visit. However, she did an excellent job, in collaboration with Dr. Hassen Bacha, organizing a very useful visit, both scientifically and culturally. Dr. Bacha (right) is pictured with me at the University of Jendouba.
During the visit, Dr. Bacha, the president of the University of Jendouba and the Association of Tunisian Toxicologists (ATT), was a gracious host who did everything possible to make my trip pleasant and beneficial. I visited three Tunisian universities: University of Carthage, University of Monastir, and University of Jendouba. At each institution, I met the faculty and students and gave two presentations. The attendance was very good and the discussions that followed were very lively and interesting.
In addition to my talks, I had the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Bacha and his colleagues possible collaborations with my lab at Duke University Medical Center and with our Special Interest Group at SOT, the Toxicologists of African Origin (TAO), for which I served as president last year. I plan to follow up these discussions to ensure that at least some of the ideas become a reality.
My visit and discussions, both in toxicology and in other topics, confirmed the characterization of Tunisia (area: 63,170 sq mi), as one of the most liberal countries in the Arab world. Tunisia is a republic with an elected president and a parliament and a population of about 12 million, primarily Arabs with minorities of Berbers and Turks. Tunisia has a diverse economy, ranging from agriculture, mining, manufacturing, and petroleum products to tourism. Much of the country's land is fertile soil. Its currency is the Tunisian dinar ( 0.45 US $). Although Arabic is the official language in Tunisia, Tunisians have a special relationship with France, with an estimated 68% of the population able to speak French. Naturally, my presentations were prepared in English. However, Dr. Bacha requested that I use Arabic as well, because some of the attendees, who speak Arabic and French, might not follow an English talk. So I made sure to make comments in Arabic after each slide. Outside my lectures, I had no problem communicating with anyone using mostly Egyptian Arabic. That is understood by Tunisians because it is the main language used in Arabic movies and TV shows.
Upon my arrival to Tunis, I did some tourist activities, exploring the city, both modern and old. Tunisia is the northernmost point on the African continent. It is bordered by Algeria, Libya, and the Mediterranean Sea. I visited old Tunis City and an active Roman amphitheater that is currently used for performance art and is one of the many Roman monuments in Tunisia that bear witness to the Roman rule beginning in 146 BC and continuing for the next 800 years. The Romans introduced Christianity. Tunis, the capital, is a very beautiful city, and like many other Tunisian cities, its homes are white and have blue shutters. My impression of Tunis is that it is a city at peace. It is quiet, and one can see many people walking, window-shopping, and sitting in restaurants and coffee shops enjoying themselves.
On Monday, July 10, I was driven to the University of Carthage and gave a talk about Duke University, history and present, and a presentation entitled “Sarin-Induced Neurotoxicity,” followed by conversation with students and faculty. I was very impressed with the discussion that showed the depth of interest of the audience in toxicology and other topics.
On Tuesday, July 11, I traveled approximately 100 miles to Monastir. After checking into the hotel, I visited the old city of Sousse and Port El Kantaoui of Sousse. On Wednesday, July 12, I visited Monastir University and gave two presentations, “Pesticides: Use of Biomarkers to Study,” and “Pesticide-Induced Brain Injury,” followed by discussion with students and faculty on organophosphate ester-induced chronic neurotoxicity. I listened to a presentation on the ATT and its activities and discussions about opportunities for collaborations between ATT and SOT (Professor (Pr.) H. Bacha, L. Ghedira, and S. Abid).
The following day, July 12, I visited the old city of Monastir. I also visited Kairouan, the first Islamic city in North Africa, and the Great Mosque of Kairouan that was built in 670 after the Arabs conquered Tunisia and introduced Islam in 646. This visit was a reminder of the common history between Tunisia and Egypt. In 969, the Tunisian rulers, the Fatimides, abandoned Tunisia, invaded Egypt, and built the city of Cairo as their capital. In 1182, both Tunisia and Egypt were ruled by the Ayyubids and in 1534 both countries were occupied by the Ottoman Empire, which lasted over 300 years. France occupied Tunis in 1881 (until 1957) and England occupied Egypt in 1882 (until 1956).
On Thursday, July 13, early in the morning, I left Monastir for Tunis. On this day, I visited other areas of the city. On Friday, July 14, I traveled early in the morning to Jendouba, where I gave two talks at the University of Jendouba about pesticides and the nerve agent sarin, followed by discussion with students and faculty. In the afternoon, I returned to Tunis before leaving the country on Saturday, July 15.
Personally, I had an excellent time exploring Tunisia and toxicology there. Toxicology research in Tunisia’s universities is related to the following major topics:
- Mycotoxins: screening in foodstuffs, commodities, study of their involvement in chronic human disease and the study of the molecular mode of action in vivo and in vitro (Team of Pr. Hassen Bacha);
- Extraction, purification, and study of toxicological and antitumoral activity of polypeptides of venom from Tunisian species of scorpions and snakes (Team of Pr. Mohamed El Ayeb and Dr. Naziha Marrekchi);
- Medicinal herbs extracts: Study of antigenotoxic, antioxidant, and antitumoral activities (Pr. Leila Guedira-Chekir);
- Heavy metals: in vivo study of organ toxicity (neurotoxicity and embryotoxicity) (Dr. Imed Messoudi);
- Pesticides: screening and in vivo toxicological studies (Pr. Hassen Ben Cheikh); and
- Marine Toxicology, survey of Tunisian coast contamination (Pr. Hammadi Bousetta and Pr. Amel Chaafii).
It is my assessment that the GSSEP encourages cooperation between SOT members and toxicologists from developing countries and has excellent benefits that exceed any monetary expenses spent on the program. It is encouraging that toxicologists from developing countries such as Tunisia and Egypt are up-to-date with all the new developments in toxicological studies. As usual, those toxicologists suffer from lack of enough funding to carry out toxicological studies to benefit their countries.
I plan to follow up with collaboration with the Tunisian scientists in a way similar to my continuing collaboration with Dr. Salama in Egypt. Since his time at Duke, I have visited his university several times and succeeded in getting a funded grant from Egypt for his laboratory. He also has visited my laboratory again at Duke. Currently, we are collaborating in advising some of his students’ research that has resulted in a PhD dissertation and three papers that were published or accepted for publication.