A structural biologist who harnesses technology in the study of the molecular structure of disease proteins has received the country’s highest civilian recognition for his work in developing treatments for influenza and cancer.

Considered by some to be one of the greatest medical developments of the 20th century, Professor Peter Colman’s pivotal contribution to the development of anti-viral drug Relenza, stockpiled by governments in anticipation of flu pandemics, was achieved through his use of X-ray crystallography.

Photographing protein molecules by crystallising them and shining an X-ray on the crystals, revealing the molecular structures within and the interaction of atoms, was groundbreaking work in the development of drug treatments.

“The use of structural biology in drug discovery was very novel in the 1980s when the influenza work was done, but it has become mainstream today and will surely remain there,” said Colman, who was yesterday awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia.

For the last 20 years, Colman has used his expertise to investigate cell death at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in the hope of finding a cure for cancer.

So far, he has contributed to the development of Venetoclax, a drug that “melts away” cancer in some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

Approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in January, the treatment is available for those with a mutation that makes the cancer resistant to standard treatments, and patients who do not have any other treatment options.

Advances in technology have fuelled these steps forward in scientific discovery.

“Technology has transformed the science I do. The business of photographing molecules has transformed in the nearly half a century that I have been doing it. It’s not just how I do my own experiments; it’s also how I know what the rest of the world is up to,” Colman said.

He called for continued investment in modern ways of imaging molecules at the atomic level to allow researchers here to remain competitive with the rest of the world and support them in the pursuit of medical treatments for fatal diseases.

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