The common thread throughout has been mycology:
the scientific study of fungi. Ghannoum even coined
the term “mycobiome” – a take on the more common
“microbiome” – to describe the communities of fungi
in the human body and their interactions with bacteria and other
microbes. (His new book carries the subtitle, Fix Your Mycobiome
Fast for Complete Digestive Wellness.)
Colleagues credit him with helping steer medicine away from
the idea of fungi as alien invaders. Instead, Ghannoum wants
people to accept the tiny life forms as native inhabitants of our
insides and an integral part of our health, for better or worse.
“Everybody looks at bacteria. For me it’s very critical to look
at both bacteria and fungi,” he says to me later that morning at
the Center for Medical Mycology, a collaboration between UH
and CWRU. Ghannoum has directed the center since 1996.
Fungus can be deadly. It’s one of leading causes of fatal
infections in hospitals and can be linked to conditions such as
Crohn’s disease, he explains. “But we should not look at the
fungus like it’s all bad,” Ghannoum says. The good fungus “trains
our immune system and helps us break down food,” he says.
If you ignore fungus, he says, “you are really missing half
From Kuwait to the U.S.
Ghannoum’s passion for fungi began in the early 1970s. He
had just finished his bachelor’s degree at American University
of Beirut and was ready to pursue advanced studies at
Loughborough University of Technology in England. But he
couldn’t afford the trip. His father understood that his son’s best
opportunities lay outside of Lebanon. So he sold his plumber’s
tools and bought Mahmoud a ticket.
“My mom and dad did not know how to read or write,”
he says. “But they knew the value of education.”
At Loughborough, a professor encouraged Ghannoum
to look into why test rabbits treated with antibiotics were
developing fatal fungal infections. Ghannoum later noticed that
bad fungi also flourished in women treated
with antibiotics, leading to vaginal
The problem, he deduced, was that
killing off both bad and good bacteria was
providing an opening for another native
microbe to run rampant: fungi known as
Candida. Ghannoum today is recognized
as a top expert on Candida and its various
species. “It’s the most common fungal
colonizer in humans,” he says.
Family and friends say a never-quit
personality as much as his expertise has
pushed his career, particularly when things
look bleakest. After Loughborough and
a short stint in Malta, Ghannoum took
a professorship in mycology at Kuwait
University. A colleague later encouraged
him to seek better opportunities in the
U.S., but Ghannoum and his wife, Marie,
decided they were happy raising their
family in tiny Kuwait. “It was a good life,”
Saddam Hussein changed that.
In 1990, Iraqi forces invaded the
Ghannoums’ adopted country. As it
happened, the professor and his family
were safely on summer vacation in
northern England, where Marie grew up.
But Ghannoum knew their life in Kuwait
By chance, Ghannoum was already
booked to speak at a conference in
Washington, D.C., the perfect opportunity
to hunt for a new job in the U.S. But when
he got there he realized he needed an
extra week to line up the right interviews,
and all his money had been frozen by the
invasion. There was no way to stay.
That’s when Ghannoum, with barely
a dollar to his name, saw a sign for
a travel agency in D.C. and thought
he’d take a chance. Inside, he told the
travel agent in charge his whole story.
The agent, seeing Ghannoum’s plight,
changed his plane ticket for free and
even gave him $80 out of his own
wallet. Soon after, Ghannoum found a
job at UCLA and a new life for his family
in the U.S.
“For Mahmoud there is always a way
to fix something,” says Marie, his wife of
44 years. “To him, there is nothing that’s
ever a done deal.”