Studying intestinal viruses in Uganda: Dr Lucy Thorne

Posted on October 20, 2015   by Lucy Thorne

Earlier this year, Dr Lucy Thorne visited Uganda on a Research Visit Grant from the Microbiology Society. Lucy travelled to Entebbe to begin a research project studying how common intestinal viruses are in Ugandan children. While she was out there, we asked her to document some of her experiences with a video camera.


My research in the Goodfellow Lab at the University of Cambridge is focused on norovirus, better known in the UK as the ‘winter vomiting bug’. It is the major cause of viral gastroenteritis worldwide, but its prevalence and impact in African countries is largely unknown. Our group also studies the hepatitis E virus, an intestinal virus that can cause acute liver disease. Uganda has experienced the largest known outbreak of hepatitis E to date, but circulation of the virus outside the context of an outbreak has not been studied. A vaccine for norovirus is currently advancing into clinical trials and a hepatitis E vaccine is licensed for use in China, so there is a need for up-to-date data if we are to build an argument for widespread trials and vaccine use in low- and middle-income countries.


The aim of my trip was to begin a project to determine the prevalence of both viruses in Ugandan children. I knew when I applied for the grant that it would create many exciting scientific opportunities, such as the chance to establish a new international collaboration, to contribute much needed studies on intestinal viruses in low- and middle-income countries, and to learn and exchange techniques. However I’d underestimated the brilliant opportunity it gave me for an adventure, through carrying out research and living in a completely different environment and the new perspectives that I’d gain from this.

I visited Professor Alison Elliott’s lab at the Uganda Virus Research Institute. The lab has established the Entebbe Mother and Baby study, in which they have collected blood samples from over 1,500 children every year since birth, while also providing healthcare. This unique cohort enabled us to determine how common both viruses are in Ugandan children, the age at which they first encounter the viruses and whether the occurrence of infections is linked to social factors and co-infections with other pathogens.

The lab was instantly very welcoming and it was great fun to be a part of it. One of the best bits of the whole experience were the new people I met. I learnt a lot about Uganda through chats over delicious local food (I grew to love the specialty of steamed bananas) in the gardens of the institute, with monkeys roaming around! The more I learnt about Uganda, the more it made me consider the viral infections we were studying in a very different context and population, which was a big change from focusing on the molecular biology.

Entebbe was a beautiful place to live and work. The tropical scenery was stunning with views of Lake Victoria in nearly every direction and some incredible sunsets over the lake. I’d never been to a place that sounded so alive and every morning I awoke to a strange natural alarm clock of weird and wonderful birdcall, farmyard noises, insect life and local music. There was a friendly, laid-back atmosphere around the town and I enjoyed exploring it and going to the local markets for my weekly shop. Each outing was a mini adventure in itself, with navigating the ‘boda-boda’ motorcycle taxi drivers that carried everything from five people to wardrobes on the back!

My visit was part of an exchange with Angela Nalwoga, a Senior Research Technician who first visited our lab in Cambridge to learn the techniques for producing the necessary reagents. Her visit was funded by a grant from the Alborada Trust as part of the Cambridge–Africa Programme, which aims to strengthen Africa’s own capacity for sustainable research by supporting the potential of individuals and also collaborations between African research networks and the University of Cambridge.

The project is part of an ongoing collaboration that we have worked together to establish, and which for me has been one of the best outcomes of my research visit. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and the opportunities it has created, and I’m grateful of the support from the Microbiology Society through the Research Visit Grant, which has been just one of the benefits of my membership so far.