Microbiology: Small Viruses and Big Impact

The PAPRSB Institute of Health Sciences (IHS) aims to conduct high impact research. Through its postgraduate research programme, it has produced almost 20 doctoral researchers that contribute to the success of the faculty's research and international research standing.

Fakhriedzwan Fitri Hj Idris started off in 2008 with the Bachelor in Health Sciences Biomedical Sciences, a four-year degree programme in PAPRSB Institute of Health Sciences (IHS). But it was after undergoing internship at the Ottomeyer Hof Clinical Research Centre in University of Heidelberg, Germany for his Discovery Year, that he decided to further pursue virology. This was also the year that UBD students first set out to participate in Discovery Year, a flagship programme under the GenNEXT curriculum aimed at giving students real-life experience and industry exposure.

Exposed to research and findings bacteria and fungi there, he developed a particular interest in viruses. Calling them "sneaky creatures", his passion grew with the realisation that viruses will always be there, constantly evolving and adapting to different hosts. "When you try to intervene or stop them, they always have a way to divert and evade," he explains. "This allows for them successfully infecting their different hosts."

This was the challenge he was looking for, a continuous field of research that is also a fundamental part of life. They come and go as they will, causing epidemics. But researchers like Fakhri are also fundamental in keeping them in check.

In Germany, Fakhri had the opportunity to get a closer look at herpes simplex virus (HSV) and tick-borne encephalitis. He continued to develop interests in vectors and entomology (insects). And in his final year, he focused on Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that can spread dengue fever, chikungunya, Mayaro, Zika fever and yellow fever. He saw the relevance of such studies in virology and decided it was something he could pursue further especially with its prevalence in the southeast asian region. Research on the dengue virus has already begun in PAPRSB IHS since 2013. A collaboration with the Ministry of Health, postgraduate students at the faculty used advanced and sophisticated molecular biology approaches to determine the serotypes of dengue virus in samples obtained from patients in the country.

Following his Masters in Microbiology in University of Manchester, Fakhri returned to UBD to pursue his PhD. He was then first exposed to blood-brain barriers and glycans in the United Kingdom, which proved to be useful as UBD later offered him a place to conduct research on neuroviral infections. His thesis titled "Establishment of in vitro blood-brain models for the study of dengue encephalitis" sought to explore the crucial role of glycans in virus biology and the virus-host interaction.

The surfaces of host cells and viruses are decorated by complex glycans. These play a number of roles in the dynamic interplay between the virus and the host including viral entry into host cell, modulation of proteolytic cleavage of viral proteins, recognition and neutralisation of the virus by the host immune system. As primary receptors for viral attachment and entry, insights into glycans and their interactions may hold the key to understanding how to target these interactions for antiviral therapy or vaccines.

As this area of microbiology is still not widely explored, especially in Brunei Darussalam, Fakhri is confident that further research will eventually be able to pave the way for new drugs that can assist with viral infections such as dengue which are common following rainy seasons. In addition to precautions already set out by relevant authorities, this may even help to save lives should those precautions fail.

Fakhri and another two postgraduate students from PAPRSB IHS, Nurul Adhwa Hj Abd Rahman and Hajah Nurul Mahfuzah Haji Hassan participated as poster presenters in the 14th Annual Scientific Meeting (INFECTION 2017), which was organised by the Stanley Ho Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (CEID), Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). They participated in the Postgraduate Student Exchange Session, which was joined by other students from Mahidol University (Thailand), University of Macau (Macau), CUHK (Hong Kong), National Taiwan University (Taiwan) and Guangdong Pharmaceutical University (China).

The annual scientific meeting serves as a scientific platform to discuss and evaluate effective clinical and public health measures for the prevention and control of emerging infectious diseases. Renowned speakers from Australia, Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were present to address emerging infections, vector-borne infections, sexually acquired infections and infections in the healthcare settings.

At the end of the session, Fakhri did UBD proud as he was announced the winner for the best poster presentation of the Postgraduate Student Exchange Session. His poster presentation was about the roles of mannose- and N-acetyl glycosamine-rich glycans in the infection of brain endothelial cells by dengue viruses.

Only 26-years old when he started his PhD in PAPRSB IHS, Fakhri shared that, "research is my lifelong goal." With a clearer direction now as opposed to when he began his degree programme, he hopes to inspire others to look for something challenging, especially when it comes to the pursuit of education. After completing his PhD, Fakhri will be continuing his research with a research fellowship at National University of Singapore (NUS), which is one of UBD's close international partners.

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