Pitted against microscopic enemies in petri dishes, laboratory specialists clad in white coats can be found on any given day down common corridors in the Pasteur Institute trying to crack the battle plans of the infectious diseases common in Cambodia.
One of the 29 branches of the renowned French medical institute, named after its founder Louis Pasteur, who discovered the sterilization process dubbed “pasteurization” and the first rabies vaccine in 1885, the facility off Monivong Boulevard employs nearly 100 scientists dedicated to preventive medicine.
Best known locally for its vaccination center and its free and anonymous screenings for HIV/AIDS, the Pasteur Institute—backed by research grants, donors and its own money—is also stocked with vital public health tools in the armory of microbiology, cell differentiation and genetic analysis.
The institute’s director, Dr Jean-Louis Sarthou, said that scientists at the Phnom Penh clinical research center—founded in Cambodia in 1953 and located at its rebuilt location for the last 10 years—work every day on testing and decoding bacteria’s DNA sequences.
“The mission of Pasteur is the problem of all infectious diseases,” Sarthou said, adding that the institute—part of the teaching hospital program linking Calmette Hospital and the University of Health Sciences—has a long record of contributing to the training of Cambodian doctors, scientists and laboratory technicians and medical students from abroad.
“These young scientists contribute to Pasteur and at same time contribute to the specialty of virology,” Sarthou said. “Our role is to offer reference, surveys and diagnosis to transfer technology to Cambodian scientists.”
One young Cambodian technician, 25-year-old Bun Thin, who works in a cell culture laboratory, said his training in collecting and testing samples at Pasteur is preparing him to realize his goal of becoming a physician.
Dr Ong Sivuth, a medical doctor since 1986 and currently working as the chief of the laboratory for the virology department, said she has consistently found her diagnosis work at the institute both gratifying and complex.
“It’s very interesting to find these new emerging diseases because there is a lack of information about the viruses circulating in this country,” the veteran doctor said, across the hall from a small room holding hundreds of white laboratory mice.
Testing for avian influenza—the region’s latest emerging disease, which some experts fear has the potential to spark the next global pandemic—is taking up a large amount of time, energy and money at the institute, according to the chief of the virology department, Dr Philippe Buchy.
“Our goal is to work closely in the field with the Ministry of Health to catch the virus as soon as possible and make sure there is no mutation,” said Buchy, confirming that there have been no positive tests for bird flu in humans or animals since April.
He said Pasteur officials meet twice a week with health officials from the World Health Organization, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and Ministries of Health and Agriculture to strengthen disease surveillance systems.
Through the network of Pasteur Institutes across the globe—from Shanghai, China to Niamey, Niger—the research community monitors the evolution of numerous diseases.
Scientists affiliated with the Pasteur Institutes through the decades have a strong record of medical milestones.
Pasteur researchers—known as Pastorians—have won eight Nobel Prizes in immunology, physiology and medicine, and among other medical accomplishments, were the first scientists to isolate the AIDS virus in 1983.