Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Laboratory unveiled to aid in battle against deadly diseases

Laboratory unveiled to aid in battle against deadly diseases

Dr Deubel, director at Institut Pasteur of Cambodia.
Dr Deubel, director at Institut Pasteur of Cambodia. Charlotte Pert

Laboratory unveiled to aid in battle against deadly diseases

The Kingdom is rife with infectious diseases, with statistics for all the major killers several times the regional average. But while Cambodia has long had to deal with tuberculosis and malaria, new deadly viruses, such as avian flu, EV71 and nipah, continue to make their debut. Even some of the old culprits, such as rabies, continue to kill as international donors put their cash elsewhere.

Although non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, are beginning to take a larger toll as the country develops economically, Dr Vincent Deubel, director at Institut Pasteur of Cambodia, said that infectious diseases still kill more people overall.

“Infectious diseases remain the biggest cause of death in Cambodia,” said Dr Deubel, adding that he was not including death from traumatic injuries.

Infectious diseases in Cambodia made international headlines in summer 2012 when at least 64 children died from a mysterious hand, foot and mouth disease that turned out to involve EV71, though other illnesses, such as dengue fever and streptococcus suis, were also present in many patients. EV71 is normally a mild illness with cold-like symptoms, but serious cases in young children can cause encephalitis or meningitis.

The Kingdom is rife with infectious diseases.
The Kingdom is rife with infectious diseases. Charlotte Pert

Avian flu, which infected a record 22 people in Cambodia last year and has already infected at least nine this year, is also making itself known in the Kingdom. Similar to other influenza strains, complications sometimes result in death.

To boost regional research into infectious diseases, Institut Pasteur recently inaugurated a new 400 square metre research facility to host the Regional Platform of Research–Asia, which Dr Deubel said should be operational by the end of the year. The idea, he said, is to bring regional researchers together into a consolidated centre for research.

“The idea was to try to find a way to coordinate more, to bring people working together on infectious diseases, and to prevent redundancy, and to have more cooperation and trust,” said Dr Deubel, adding that colleagues in neighbouring countries sometimes had difficulty coordinating research.

The laboratory will accept applications from researchers who have already received grants. Pasteur will take 10 per cent of the researchers’ grant funds in exchange for using the space and its resources.

“We built it up as a classic laboratory for molecular biology, for cell culture, for virus culture. It is an open space where people can bring their equipment.”

The building also features a level two bio-safety lab, which accommodates moderately dangerous and contagious diseases such as influenza A, salmonella and measles. Pasteur already has a level three facility on site, while level four, the highest safety level, is only needed for one disease found in Cambodia: the nipah virus, a disease found in the country’s bats that has yet to infect a person in the Kingdom. A highly dangerous form of encephalitis with no known effective treatment, around half of all human patients have died.

It will be important, said Dr Deubel, for the researchers to work on projects concerning diseases other than the “big three”: tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria, which are all high on donors’ priority lists. “Neglected” diseases, such as rabies and dengue fever, must also receive attention, he said, explaining: “It’s not because they happen rarely, it’s because they don’t attract much funding.”

An Institut Pasteur technician examines blood samples at the old lab.
An Institut Pasteur technician examines blood samples at the old lab. Charlotte Pert

Although Dr Deubel said he plans to retire this year, he said he would also like to see the centre used for entomology, the study of insects, to further understand the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.

“This is a big gap. We have a very strong group working on malaria, but this group doesn’t have the capacity to work on mosquitoes themselves. This is very important so you can better handle the control of these mosquitoes.”

Gene analysis conducted last year, which was conducted by Pasteur’s Malaria Molecular Epidemiology Unit, pinpointed Western Cambodia as the world’s largest hot spot of mosquitos resistant to artemisinin, the frontline anti-malarial drug.

Dr Deubel said he would also be interested in conducting comparative studies with Pasteur’s African branches to determine geographical differences in the bacterial composition of the human digestive tract. By better understanding the differences in microbes that live in all human bodies, Dr Deubel said it can help improve fecal transplants, which involves taking bacteria from a healthy person’s stool and placing it into the patient.

“It is something that was known in China for many years. It was used arbitrarily before, but now people are looking at the genetics and the composition of the bacteria.”

For now, the hallways of the new research centre are empty and the labs have only the most basic equipment. But by the end of the year, Dr Deubel expects the lab to accommodate up to 50 researchers.

“If they are very good researchers with innovative ideas, who want to establish here, and [perform] work dedicated to infectious disease research, they will certainly be accepted on the capacity of their innovation.”

MOST VIEWED

  • PM to vet NY holiday dates

    The Ministry of Economy and Finance submitted a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking him to formally set a five-day national holiday from August 17-21 to make up for the Khmer New Year holiday in April that was postponed. Finance minister Aun Pornmoniroth sent

  • Cambodia rejects UN rights claim

    Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva on Friday hit back at David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression after he raised concerns over the repression of free speech and

  • Snaring may spawn diseases

    The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned that snaring of animals has become a crisis that poses a serious risk to wildlife in Southeast Asia and could spawn the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans. Its July 9 report entitled Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’

  • Ex-party leader, gov’t critic named as secretary of state

    A former political party leader known for being critical of the government has been appointed secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development, a royal decree dated July 9 said. Sourn Serey Ratha, the former president of the Khmer Power Party (KPP), told The Post

  • Residence cards set for over 80,000 immigrants

    The Ministry of Interior plans to grant residence cards to more than 80,000 immigrants to better keep track of them. The ministry announced the plan on July 10, following the results of an immigration census. “An inter-ministerial committee and many operational working groups have been set up

  • Kingdom produces PPE gear

    Medical supplies from Cambodia have been donated to member countries of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to assist in the fight against Covid-19, said an ADB report published on July 9. The report stated that the supplies were donated as a response to global efforts to

  • Kingdom, US vow stronger ties

    At an academic forum on Saturday to celebrate 70 years of Cambodia-US diplomatic ties, Cambodian researchers and officials expressed hope of encouraging US investments and for that country to deepen and improve its bilateral relations. Held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, it reviewed the past 70

  • Fifteen Cambodians from Saudi get Covid-19

    The Ministry of Health on Sunday confirmed 15 more imported cases of Covid. The 15 men ‒ all Cambodian aged 21 to 33 ‒ arrived from Saudi Arabia on Friday via a connecting flight in Malaysia. They were travelling with 79 other passengers, three of them women. The ministry said 80 of the

  • Ministry requests school opening

    The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on Thursday said it would request a decision from Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow a small number of schools to reopen next month. Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha said if the request is granted, higher-standard schools will reopen

  • Kingdom eyes India FTA, China deal set for August

    Cambodia is studying the possibility of establishing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with India to open a new market with the second-largest regional economy. This comes as an FTA with China is scheduled to be signed next month while similar negotiations with South Korea