Structural biology leader appointed Companion of the Order of Australia

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Walter and Eliza Hall Institute scientist Professor Peter Colman has been appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia, Australia’s highest civilian honour, as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2017 (Image Credit: Herald Sun).

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute scientist Professor Peter Colman has been appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia, Australia’s highest civilian honour, as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2017.

The award recognises Professor Colman’s scientific achievements, particularly in the fields of structural biology and medicinal chemistry, his leadership in the commercial translation of scientific discoveries, and his service to the scientific community.

A physics graduate of the University of Adelaide, Professor Colman undertook postdoctoral training in the United States, Germany (where he was mentored by Nobel Laureate Professor Robert Huber) and in Sydney.

In 1978 he joined CSIRO, where he established X-ray crystallography, a technique used to study the three-dimensional structure of proteins at the atomic level. There he solved the 3-D structure of the protein neuraminidase, which is used by the influenza virus to spread within the respiratory tract. Professor Colman subsequently co-founded a biotechnology company Biota Holdings Ltd, and discovered the first ever ‘neuraminidase inhibitor’ drug zanamivir (marketed as Relenza™), used to treat influenza. Neuraminidase inhibitors are now stockpiled by governments around the world for use in an influenza pandemic.

Professor Colman was Chief of the CSIRO Division of Biomolecular Engineering from 1989 to 1997 and Director of the Biomolecular Research Institute from 1991 to 2000, during which periods he fostered the practice of biologists and medicinal chemists working harmoniously.

Since 2001, Professor Colman has led the Structural Biology division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, where he has focused on understanding the structure of the proteins that control cell survival and cell death. This research underpinned the development of a new class of anti-cancer agents, called BH3-mimetics, which override the survival signals keeping cancer cells alive. One such agent, venetoclax, is now in clinical use for treating certain forms of leukaemia.

Professor Colman said he was honoured to receive the award. “Structural biology lets us see molecules, understand how they work, and do something about it when human health is compromised,” he said.

“It has been my good fortune that twice my curiosity about how biology works has led me to useful findings.

“First, in the 1980s at CSIRO, whilst seeking to understand the year-to-year variation in influenza viruses, my colleagues and I discovered neuraminidase inhibitors. Then, here at the Institute, I was fascinated by the molecular interactions that control cell death, and which are dysfunctional in cancer. With a very large team of scientists here and together with commercial partners, we have been able to bring a new class of anti-cancer agents to patients,” Professor Colman said.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute director Professor Doug Hilton AO said Professor Colman had made a profound impact on health through a program of research spanning from fundamental to translational science. “Peter’s research has contributed to drugs now in clinical use for treating influenza and leukaemia, which is testament to his commitment to research translation,” Professor Hilton said.

“As well as collaborating with international pharmaceutical companies, he has founded two Australian biotech companies.

“Peter has long been recognised internationally as an eminent scientist in his field, but his impact on Australian medical research stretches far beyond this. He has been a wonderful mentor to many other scientists, and has been an advocate for fruitful multi-disciplinary collaborations. Peter’s service to the scientific community is also notable, through memberships of committees and boards, and other voluntary roles.”

Professor Colman’s scientific achievements have also been recognised by awards including:
– fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science (1989), the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (1997) and the Royal Society (2014)
– the Australian Academy of Science’s Macfarlane Burnet Medal (1995)
– the Australia Prize (1996, now called the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science)
– the Australian Institute of Policy & Science’s Florey Medal (2004)
– the Victoria Prize (2008)

In the Australian honours system, awards in the Order of Australia are the pre-eminent means of recognising outstanding achievement and contribution by Australian citizens. Professor Colman is one of 15 Australians appointed Companions of the Order of Australia on the Queen’s Birthday, June 12, 2017.