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Leading ladies with a mission: combat toxic fungi in food

Sarah De Saeger en Marthe De Boevre

Researchers and governments come from all over the world to ask advice to Sarah De Saeger (left in the picture) and Marthe De Boevre (right in the picture). The two UGhent researchers are world authorities in their field, namely toxic substances in fungi that cause cancers and affect immune systems. “We want to share our knowledge with regions that need it.”

It is 2016. Food samples from the WHO, the World Health Organization, arrive in a lab at Ghent University. The samples come from Tanzania, where people have inexplicably been dying during two months. The WHO is at a loss: the samples test negative for all known pathogenic bacteria and viruses. “Do you want to test the samples?”, the two Ghent University researchers are asked.

Sarah De Saeger and Marthe De Boevre test the samples and tears come to their eyes when the results arrive. Such incredibly high levels of toxins in maize samples … They have never seen that. And the story gets worse: the samples turn out to be two months old. During that time the situation has therefore remained unchanged and the toxins have caused several more deaths.

Fungi in food

These toxic substances are mycotoxins, they are formed by fungi to be found in food. These fungi can be both visible and invisible. For example, certain fungi may form on crops such as corn or wheat while they are growing in the fields. They attack the plant and yet remain invisible… they are also very toxic to humans.

Some mycotoxins are so toxic that they cause cancers or attack the immune system. It’s especially the situation in southern countries, where less attention is paid to food safety, that mycotoxins cause many (fatal) victims.

“Those test results were a revelation. Then we realized: we need to do more with this,” say Sarah De Saeger and Marthe De Boevre. The two researchers focused entirely on mycotoxins and have since taken on a leading role in this research worldwide.

Marthe De Boevre

Also in our food

Mycotoxins are in food everywhere, but not in the same amounts. Yes, there’s also in Belgium, even though very strict regulations apply when it comes to food safety. “We are chronically exposed to mycotoxins, but because they are in such low quantities, they are less harmful,” the researchers explain.

This is different in southern countries. “In Africa, people are acutely exposed to very high levels of mycotoxins. Eighty per cent of all liver cancer cases occur in Africa and are related to aflatoxins, a type of mycotoxin.” In addition, most Africans don’t have a very varied diet and so are continuously exposed to the same toxic substances.

Our mission: to share knowledge

And so the two have a mission: to share their knowledge with countries where that knowledge is lacking. That’s why they founded Mytox South, a global network to convey research southwards. “We not only share our knowledge with researchers and universities, but also work on awareness campaigns directed at farmers, consumers and governments. We need to include them in the story if we want to solve the problem.” In addition, they also train people coming from abroad, who can then expand knowledge in their home environment.

Sarah De Saeger

World champions

Sarah De Saeger and Marthe De Boevre are now among the leading scientists in the world when it comes to mycotoxins. “People come to us from all over. I think we can say in all modesty that we lead the world when it comes to mycotoxins.”

How is that? “We don’t just focus on high-quality scientific publications. The human factor is also very important to us and we try to involve people who are in the field as much as possible,” they say. The two researchers regularly travel to Africa themselves to talk to farmers in local markets, and also organize forums there in the hope of putting mycotoxins on the political agenda.

But scientific research remains their core business of course. They also set the tone there. De Boevre recently received a prestigious ERC starting grant. This is a European grant for talented scientists with a research proposal that has the potential to change the world. It is a particularly competitive field: only ten percent of the applicants ultimately receive a grant.

Making the world a better place

International fame or prestigious scholarships are a bonus, but the two are not doing it for that. “We work very hard and do so in the hope that we can make the world a little better,” De Boevre explains. “Some may think that is naive, but it is our passion and we know that we can do that with our research.”

Story by Ghent University