2004 – Professor Peter Colman

Professor Peter Colman is the seminal contributor to the discovery of a new class of anti-influenza virus drugs, the neuraminidase inhibitors, which include what you may know as Relenza and Tamiflu.

In the early 1980s Professor Colman determined the three-dimensional structure of neuraminidase. This protein is found on the outer casing of the influenza virus. The process involved crystallising the enzyme and analysing its molecular structure using X-ray crystallography.

With the structure of neuraminidase known, Professor Colman thought it would be possible to design a compound that would neatly fit into the active site of the enzyme and thus prevent its action.

After persuading the promoters of the then-unlisted biotechnology company, Biota, to support his work, Professor Colman led the team that developed zanamivir (Relenza). Zanamivir stops the influenza virus detaching from the surface of one cell and entering another, thus preventing its spread.

Professor Colman’s work became one of the first examples of a drug design based on knowing the structure of a target molecule. Structure-based drug design has now become a routine tool for drug discovery. It has led to the development of oseltamivir, a relative of zanamivir that is marketed as Tamiflu.

The safety and effectiveness of zanamivir and oseltamivir have, for the first time, provided a means to deal with pandemic influenza. As a result, many governments have stockpiled zanamivir and oseltamivir as a safeguard against an outbreak of pandemic avian influenza.

Professor Colman has published more than 90 original scientific papers and has received many prizes and awards including the Australia Prize (shared, 1996), the Mayne Florey Medal (2004), James Cook Medal (Royal Society of New South Wales, 1999), Burnet Medallist and Lecturer (Australian Academy of Science, 1995) and CSIRO Medal for Research Achievement (1985).

He studied physics at the University of Adelaide and completed his PhD in 1970. Professor Colman moved to Melbourne in 1978, following post-doctoral positions at the University of Oregon, the Max Planck Institute in Munich and the University of Sydney. He was Chief of the CSIRO Division of Biomolecular Engineering from 1989 to 1997.

Professor Colman is head of the Structural Biology Division at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and a NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow. He was a founding member of the Board of Directors of Biota Holdings Ltd and of Starpharma Ltd. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

Professor Peter Colman graduated MBBS from Monash University in 1977; FRACP in 1984 and MD in 1986.  Peter performed clinical training at Alfred and Royal Melbourne Hospitals and continued onto post graduate research training in Melbourne University, Department of Medicine at RMH.  He then moved to the US to where he undertook post doctoral training at Joslin Diabetes Centre, Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Since 1988, Peter has been the head of the Endocrinology Laboratory and since 1991, the Director of Department of Diabetes and Endocrinology, Royal Melbourne Hospital.  Other appointments include Honorary Professorial Associate, Walter & Eliza Hall Institute and Clinical Professor, University of Melbourne, Dept of Medicine.  Peter is also Chairman of Melbourne Health Human Research and Ethics Committee.

Peter’s major research interests include prediction and prevention of autoimmune diabetes. His wealth of knowledge, expertise and prolific research activities place him at the forefront of global diabetes understanding.