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Of insects, mice and man

Take an unconventional global health research idea, apply for funding, and the chances of success are usually slim.

Enter the philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is paying 81 scientists worldwide $US 100,000 each to test bold concepts. And Dr Fasseli Coulibaly, from the Monash Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is one happy recipient.

The 34-year-old French expatriate has devoted his research career to cracking the three-dimensional structures of viruses: from birnaviruses of fish and poultry, to poxviruses, which affect animals and humans, and to baculovirus, which infects insects.

“Viruses have everything I want,” Dr Coulibaly says. “You can study them at the molecular level and also have an impact on public health.”

Now he is translating his passion to designing low-cost vaccines against HIV, and potentially, other human illnesses. But rather than use conventional vaccine vectors or carriers, Dr Coulibaly will use sugar cube-like crystals, called polyhedra, from an insect virus harmless to humans, to try and coax the immune system into action, and thwart the threat when it appears.

“We want to prove that these polyhedra are better than existing ways of presenting foreign molecules to the immune system. We will be comparing polyhedra containing the HIV-1 Gag protein with soluble HIV-1 Gag alone,” Dr Coulibaly says.

To achieve this goal, he has partnered with Associate Professor Johnson Mak, an HIV assembly expert from the Burnet Institute, who has supplied the HIV gag gene for the vaccine. The challenge for the Monash team is to produce in insect cells a crystalline vaccine that contains enough HIV-1 Gag for testing in mice. Associate Professor Rosemary French, an immunologist, also from the Burnet Institute, will check if mice mount immune responses to the candidate vaccines.

The stakes are high, but Dr Coulibaly is cautious. “It would be fantastic if we could make a promising HIV vaccine,” he says. “It’s challenging and it might not happen. But it is one of our long-term goals.”

If Dr Coulibaly’s novel vaccine is a star performer, the health applications would be extraordinary. And future funding for ongoing research would be assured. He has a year to find the answer.

By Vicki Burkitt
8 June 2009

Dr Fasseli Coulibaly

Dr Fasseli Coulibaly, from the Monash Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology