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Dr Sumy Thomas: Deciphering the human puzzle, from the inside out

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Dr Teressa Sumy Thomas says it was her early years in the rural Eastern Cape that shaped her broader goal in life: to serve those in need.  “I grew up in the Transkei, where my parents taught senior secondary biology and physical science at rural schools. These were schools where the only meal the children received for the day was at school, and many came to school hungry. Education levels were low, and English was the medium of instruction, even though it was not their first language. Nevertheless, teachers and doctors emerged from those schools. So, quite early on, I was exposed to how difficult life can be for people starting out in South Africa, but how education can provide an equal opportunity,” she says.

As the 2020 recipient of the prestigious Discovery Foundation MGH Award, Thomas, 33, will have the opportunity of a year-long medical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, once travel restrictions are lifted. MGH is a clinical service and biomedical research facility and is the largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, based in Boston in the United States.

She will receive face-to-face supervision from leading experts, and gain exposure to the hospital’s research environment. 

Thomas, whose family was later based in Kokstad, KwaZulu-Natal, went on to study at a boarding school in Pietermaritzburg. “But, I think, being exposed to life in the Eastern Cape, where my parents taught for a decade, I saw the effects of HIV and I knew my broader aim was to serve the greater South African community,” the soft-spoken doctor says.

She decided to study medicine in high school. After completing her degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, Thomas did her practical training at the rural Ngwelezana Hospital near Pietermaritzburg, where she worked in emergency medicine. However, her recent specialisation, completed at Wits, was in internal medicine. “The reason for this specialisation is that I want to work closely with patients, to figure out the puzzle of medicine by using clinical clues. When we put these clues together, we can really help people with complicated conditions,” she says.

Looking for the answers to complicated conditions

Thomas says she will be placed at MGH Metabolism Unit in the Division of Endocrinology to figure out one such complicated condition that has come up in her recent work. She makes the science sound simple, explaining that her research will explore how HIV and antiretroviral medicine affect the endocrine system. 

“This will strongly address a need in the population of South Africa. We have an estimated 7.7 million people living with HIV — the largest pandemic in the world. While ARVs have helped give longevity to patients in the past decade, we are now seeing larger number of patients at risk for cardiometabolic disease, including dysglycaemia and fatty liver disease, which could be a result of the virus itself or from ARV therapy. This area needs to be explored further,” she says.

“Diabetes is such an epidemic. Especially being of South Indian descent, I have seen the devastating effects on my family members who are predisposed to the condition. I also wanted to choose a topic that would be relevant to global health, in keeping with the aim of the award I’ve received. I am excited to have made contact with a mentor in the form of Professor Grinspoon, Chief of the Metabolism Unit, who has agreed to guide me during the fellowship,” she says.

The main aspect of her research is to study the reasons that ARV drugs and viruses promote glucose, cholesterol and hypertension abnormalities in patients. “It is a fairly new area of research, but I hope that it will allow us to work out how to target the right drugs for the right people,” she says.

“The metabolic unit at MGH undertakes ground-breaking studies aimed at improving the lives of people living with HIV, and I will have the incredible opportunity of being involved in novel trials conducted there,” Thomas adds.

Bringing it back home to SA

She says that as an endocrinologist, a much-needed speciality in the country, she will be able to support patients in the public sector.

“I can bring this knowledge back to South Africa to enhance the care of patients with new information acquired and to continue research in this field. By being attuned to the needs of our population, I hope to generate relevant research and be involved in the training of specialists in years to come,” says Thomas.

The Discovery Foundation MGH Fellowship Award was first introduced in 2013, and the specialist doctors are required to come back to South Africa to implement the knowledge they have gained.

It was her supervisor who encouraged her to apply for the fellowship. Professor Frederick Raal, Director of the Carbohydrate and Lipid Metabolism Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, says he is delighted about her appointment and that the experience from the US will not only benefit Thomas, but it will also enhance the field of endocrinology and ultimately the health of the South African population. 

“Sumy is an exceptional physician. She is hardworking, diligent and committed. The study will be of great benefit when she returns to South Africa, as we are at the epicentre of the HIV pandemic.” 

Thomas adds that the fellowship opportunity is unparalleled in the medical field. “I realised that there was a knowledge gap, and it just so happened that Professor Steven Grinspoon, the Boston supervisor, was an organic fit.

“The clinical component of the fellowship gives me access to observing superspecialist clinics that I may not have been exposed to, but which will be most impactful in SA. I think it is amazing that this award is accessible to all doctors, especially young doctors. It can take you into world medicine and opens an opportunity for people who have a vision and want to bring it back to the country. Without it, we would have limited access to working in a world class research facility like MGH in Boston.

“And, as a lived experience, working abroad and seeing medicine in a different setting will be life-changing. My family is so excited and proud,” she says. “My sister is a surgeon in Chicago, and my parents, who are now retired, are happy to see their two young daughters contributing to science and working in academic medicine.

“The Discovery MGH Fellowship offers me an exciting opportunity for personal and academic growth, which I firmly believe I can use to benefit South Africans,” she says.

The Discovery Foundation Awards for Healthcare in rural and underserved areas, are still open to applicants in three categories, for individuals, institutions and distinguished visitors, until 15 January 2021. Enter online via: https://www.discovery.co.za/corporate/discovery-foundation-awards 

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