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From Wisconsin to Laos: The Entomological Journey of Dr. Paul Brey

Institut Pasteur du Laos bulletin board

A bulletin board in Institut Pasteur du Laos, under the direction of Dr. Paul Brey, charts the entomological research taking place there. (Photo credit: Laura Kraft)

By Laura Kraft

This post is the second in the “Travel Bug” series by Laura Kraft, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, who will be chronicling her travels in Asia from an entomological perspective. See earlier posts from the series.

Sitting in the lobby of the Insitut Pasteur du Laos in Vientiane, you would think you were in the bustling lobby of a private institution in the United States—except most of the women passing through are wearing beautiful sinh, traditional Laotian skirts, and everyone greets each other with a friendly “Sabaidee.”

Laura Kraft

In walks Dr. Paul Brey, director of the new Institut Pasteur du Laos (IPL). I came to Vientiane to interview Dr. Brey about his past research and career, which spanned different study organisms as well as continents. As we sit down in his office, Dr. Brey makes clear that he is also excited for me to speak with some of the researchers and workers at the institute after our interview, to get more detail about the current research. He is genuinely enthusiastic about sharing the interesting studies being conducted.

Dr. Brey has not lost the Midwestern accent of his youth, having grown up in Wisconsin. He majored in entomology at the University of Wisconsin where he studied honeybees. His interest in honeybees brought him to Nice, France, where he did a summer internship studying chalkbrood fungus (Ascophaera apis) in honeybees.

As a longtime fan of Louis Pasteur’s research and humanitarian work, Dr. Brey was thrilled to get a scholarship from the French Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. At first he started working on a project with the fungal biocontrol agent Entomophthora and the pea aphid but kept hitting dead ends. Then, he switched gears and started looking at biological control of mosquito larvae using the water mold Lagenidium giganteum. This water mold penetrates the exoskeleton of the larvae, causing the insect to melanize the area around the penetration. The mosquito larvae then attempt to encapsulate the growing hyphae of L. giganteum, but, as Dr. Brey found, the Aedes aegypti larvae’s attempts at defense were ineffective against attack.

Jumping continents again, Dr. Brey started a post-doctoral position at the University of Hokkaido in Sapporo, Japan. He had initially tried to elucidate the melanization cascade in A. aegypti but was unsuccessful. In a nod to his hero Louis Pasteur, Dr. Brey then started to study the pro-phenol oxidase cascade in silkworms. Essentially, Dr. Brey got to “revisit Pasteur’s research and put a molecular dimension on [it]”. Dr. Brey found that overcrowded silkworms would scratch each other, causing a melanization effect to occur, but that the scratches were superficial, often not breaking through the exoskeleton. Dr. Brey found that the melanization cascade is started within the exoskeleton itself. Dr. Brey told me this was his “Eureka!” moment. This seemingly inert organ of insects apparently has the capability to interact with outside stresses and protect the insect through different immune cascades. He would later also find that these superficial scratches would cause the epithelium to start a cascade releasing antibacterial peptides, which may explain why caterpillar skins are sometimes used as bandages in Chinese medicine.

Dr. Brey then got a position running his own research laboratory in France working for Institut Pasteur where he continued his silkworm immunity studies, but he then slowly changed over into Drosophila melanogaster immune cascades. During his time researching in Paris, he also participated in the genome sequencing of the Anopheles gambiae mosquito.

In 2005, his itchy feet brought him to Hanoi, Vietnam, to help coordinate the Institut Pasteur International Network in Southeast Asia. He was working in this position when the Lao Minister of Health reached out to Institut Pasteur to set up an Institut Pasteur center in Vientiane. When the project was completed, Dr. Brey moved to Vientiane to head the new research center, where he is located today.

IPL focuses on arthropod vectors and diseases that are medically important. While Institut Pasteur helped to set up the facility, the IPL center itself is owned by the Lao government. Projects at the institute include looking at insecticide resistance, disease transmission and disease cycles, bionomics of medically important vectors, as well as taxonomic identification of vectors in Laos.

As for Dr. Brey, he was ready to get back into research again. While he is director general of IPL, he is also head of the Medical Entomology Laboratory there. As such, he is project coordinator on many of the research projects being conducted by the institute. While he no longer works at the bench, Dr. Brey still gets to participate in a little fieldwork as well as being deeply involved in the project design, analysis, and writing of the projects that he coordinates.

The IPL lobby has printed programs on a magazine shelf outlining all the research conducted by year. From my quick read through the two programs, the amount and variety, as well as integrity, of the research is astounding, especially considering the recent establishment of the institute. See my next blog post about the current projects being researched at IPL to judge for yourself.

Laura Kraft is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia who is taking a year off to travel the world before returning home to start a Ph.D. program in the fall of 2017.

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