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20 April 2022
Dr. Ndao’s renown and his drive to help have made Montreal a hub for research, diagnosis and treatment of tropical and parasitic diseases
Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you Dr. Momar Ndao is one of a kind. An infectious disease expert with an infectious personality, it’s hard not to be enchanted by his generosity and his passion for his work.
A tropical and parasitic disease specialist at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), Dr. Ndao has dedicated his life to helping people affected by these often-debilitating diseases. His connection to his field is personal: Dr. Ndao grew up Senegal, where he witnessed the hardships caused by tropical diseases.
“I grew up in very tough conditions,” he says. “My mother is completely blind because she contracted a tropical disease. Unfortunately, she was misdiagnosed, and as a result, she never received the treatment that she needed.”
The difficulty his mother endured inspired Dr. Ndao to pursue a career in medicine. When his uncle contracted the same disease that caused his mother’s blindness, he was even more determined to achieve this goal.
“I witnessed their suffering first hand and this served as my inspiration to work even harder so I could help them and ensure that others in my country didn’t experience this same fate,” he says.
Excelling in his studies, Dr. Ndao earned a full scholarship to university in Senegal, completing his Bachelor’s degree in biology and veterinary medicine. He was then recruited to study in Belgium, and earned his Master’s degree and PhD. His focus was parasitology—the study of the relationship between parasites, their human hosts, and their impact on the health of the population.
Today, Dr. Ndao is one of the foremost experts in his field, and highly sought after. Many people living with parasitic or tropical diseases are misdiagnosed—much like Dr. Ndao’s mother. Suffering with unexplained illness, they seek out Dr. Ndao to provide life-changing diagnoses. Patients from as far away as Australia have travelled to Montreal for the chance to meet him and hope he has answers others did not.
Dr. Ndao’s selfless work is an inspiration to Eleanor Nicholls, a former Montrealer who never lost her love for her home city. The two met during a challenging time for Dr. Ndao’s lab: an important piece of testing equipment was damaged, and the insurance claim and repairs were taking years to process.
“They were having to do a lot of the sample testing manually, which is both time consuming and dangerous for the lab technicians. I felt it was really important to help,” says Eleanor.
Eleanor arranged to meet Dr. Ndao to learn more about his work, and she immediately knew he was special. His kindness, compassion and selfless approach to medicine were obvious. Though she did not expect to make a donation that day, by the end of the meeting she had committed $200,000 to help fix Dr. Ndao’s equipment.
“This is what happens when you meet someone with a big heart and drive. You immediately know that you’ve got to help,” says Eleanor. “I could see that this was something that I was meant to do.”
With the help of Eleanor’s gift, Dr. Ndao was able to purchase brand new equipment for use in his lab. The Autoflex mass spectrometer allows him to diagnose diseases for which there are no established tests, such as Lyme and Chagas disease. It works by sequencing amino acids—the component parts of proteins—to identify patterns that signal parasitic disease. The machine also enables faster diagnosis, sometimes within hours of seeing the patient.
The Autoflex allows Dr. Ndao and his team to make life-changing diagnoses.
“I have seen patients who were told they had cancer or needed a heart transplant, but they had actually contracted a parasitic disease,” says Dr. Ndao. “It is so satisfying to be able to alleviate their suffering and greatly improve their quality of life.”
Dr. Ndao’s renown and his drive to help have made Montreal a hub for research, diagnosis and treatment of tropical and parasitic diseases. The National Reference Centre for Parasitology, of which Dr. Ndao is Laboratory Director, is located at the MUHC. The centre receives samples from around the world, providing diagnoses to people far and wide.
Dr. Ndao’s current research focus is Lyme disease, a relatively new threat in Canada. Climate change is causing Lyme-carrying ticks to migrate north, and Lyme cases in Canada are climbing.
The disease is notorious for being difficult to diagnose, resulting in months or years of suffering for those who are infected. Dr. Ndao’s VectorNET project is developing a rapid diagnostic test for the disease to ensure fewer people go undiagnosed. The ultimate goal is to one day have the test available to anyone at a pharmacy.
The MUHC Foundation is proud to support Dr. Ndao’s life-changing work through its Dream Big. Solve Humanity’s Deadliest Puzzles campaign. The campaign supports the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4), of which Dr. Ndao is a member. MI4 brings together over 250 experts from a wide range of fields to diagnose, treat and eliminate infectious diseases from COVID-19 to tuberculosis. To learn more or to donate, visit https://muhcfoundation.com/dream-big/infection-immunity/