International cooperation, new treatments … After Covid, a new era for research?

A heavy human toll, an explosion in public deficits, major divisions within society … No need to think long to list the negative consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic. However on the side of scientists, the picture is not so gloomy. In parallel with the emergence of mRNA, a technology that has made it possible to produce effective vaccines at high speed, the research world could indeed in the short and long term benefit from the lessons learned over the last eighteen years. month.

In order to find out more about these advances, the Verifiers team approached Inserm. The result of a collaboration that began several months ago in order to answer Internet users’ questions about the epidemic and take stock of the state of knowledge relating to the Covid. Among the experts called upon, we agree on one point: new horizons are opening up for researchers, who will undoubtedly have an impact on our future lives in the future.

Hope in cancer treatment

A fine connoisseur of messenger RNA, Palma Rocchi is research director at the Marseille Cancer Research Center. There, she heads a group working on nanomedicines based on nucleic acids in the fight against prostate cancer. Over the past few months, she has found that “research has intensified in an unprecedented way”, in order to “to develop treatments based on the development of new molecules which generally take a very long time to develop”. A notable acceleration that saw the emergence of mRNA: a technology that “imposed itself during the Covid-19 pandemic thanks to the successes obtained in less than a year by the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna”, notes the researcher.

“After years of research, it obtained its first commercial validation and proved that it can be mature in the medical field”, she rejoices. A breakthrough that is all the more significant given that “The fields of application are multiple and that in their wake, other new generation treatments could quickly emerge: genetic diseases, viral infections, even regenerative medicine”.

With regard to the fight against cancer, at the heart of its work, “mRNA technology opens the door to real personalized medicine that we do not have now. Where it takes ten years to develop a drug specifically targeting the genetic mutation that causes a tumor, this This technique will be able to make it possible to manufacture an individualized treatment in a few months, and therefore to treat and prevent the risk of relapse more quickly and effectively. “ Palma Rocchi insists that we “now knows that there are as many cancers as there are individuals, each tumor presenting unique molecular abnormalities”. Since then, “Over the years, it has become necessary to treat each tumor in a targeted manner in order to have the best chance of eradicating it”.

If the research director underlines the many works carried out before the emergence of the virus, she believes that the latter, no doubt, will play a major role: “People have been working on messenger RNA vaccination in cancer for about 20 years now, but the technology has come to light with Covid.” For the specialist, this “will certainly encourage public authorities and major players in the pharmaceutical industry to invest in this technology”. We can thus “expect the epidemic to have a positive and accelerating effect.”

Better understand (and fill) our gaps

Infectious disease specialist, Yazdan Yazdanpanah holds, among other things, the position of director of the thematic institute of Immunology, inflammation, infectious diseases and microbiology at Inserm. A member of the Covid-19 Scientific Council, he has been on the front line since the start of the epidemic and observes the unprecedented nature of the current health crisis. Like his colleagues, he believes that we will observe notable developments in the future.

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The lessons he draws from this epidemic? First of all, the importance of believing in research and giving it the means it needs. “It’s not just a story of funding”, considers the scientist, “it is also to assume a form of risk taking”. Little present in France or yet, this culture is more marked among the Anglo-Saxons. It is certainly no coincidence that the first messenger RNA vaccines were finalized by Moderna or Pfizer, two American companies.

Yazdan Yazdanpanah also slips that the pandemic we have witnessed has shown the importance “of research which must remain international”. And urges: “We can work together! Europe is an extraordinary force and offers us real opportunities”. More than ever, it advocates cooperation between researchers, in order to collectively find solutions to the problems and challenges of tomorrow. Remember, for example, that the initial sequencing of Covid-19 was carried out by Chinese teams, work which was quickly communicated to the WHO and to foreign researchers.

Faced with the current health crisis, Yazdan Yazdanpanah finally calls for a form of humility. The Covid, he believes, has highlighted certain French shortcomings: “We are very good at knowing if someone arriving at the hospital has a risk of developing an illness, but we do not know how the care that we mobilize around this person is organized”, he regrets. To his eyes, “the link between hospital and city medicine” must progress. “You can have 50 drugs available, but if the person doesn’t come to the hospital and their problem isn’t detected, then that’s no use.”

The symbol of efficient science

Fragile, French research? Nicolas Manel thinks so too. A specialist in virology and immunology, he is attached to Inserm and the Institut Curie. Of the Covid-19, he notably retains that he has “made it possible to show and explain in the media the catastrophic delay in the funding of fundamental research in France, characterized by underinvestment, a stifling bureaucracy, a dysfunctional evaluation and a disinterest by many big fortunes and big companies”. An observation all the more severe as this virus “shows that scientific research and human health have a major impact on the very functioning of the economy and society, and therefore calls for major investments in research and health”.

Pointing a finger “France’s structural backwardness in equipment for the development of vaccines and innovative therapies”, the expert believes that in the future, the public authorities should “promote more ambitious strategies “. However, strictly from a scientific point of view, “Covid-19 has enabled major and unexpected discoveries (such as the discovery of anti-interferon autoantibodies) which open up new scientific research questions which go beyond this virus”.

The epidemic, at the same time, gave “to a large number of excellent scientists the opportunity to express themselves and explain how science works in the mass media”. An encouraging element according to Nicolas Manel: “At a time when France is winning on many international scientific indicators, talking about science, discussing with scientists, is extremely positive, in particular to interest young people and stimulate careers.” A fortiori when such a virus shows how much “scientific research in general is surprising, responsive and efficient”.

An impact up to the human sciences

The Covid-19 will not have mobilized only infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and other virologists. Usually specialized in public policies around drugs, the sociologist and researcher at Inserm Marie Jauffret-Roustide has been examining in recent months the way in which certain population groups have experienced the epidemic. The youngest in particular. The opportunity for her to collaborate with fellow Canadians and to set up new working methods. “Before, with my colleagues in Vancouver, it was customary for me to join them there to work. With the Covid and the videoconferencing tools at our disposal, we adopted new organizations. We could have considered them before, that’s for sure, but it was a trigger. ”

Online tools that facilitate exchanges between researchers, but also allow their work to be fed into, with the “launch of an online survey in 2020 which resulted in the recruitment of nearly 10,000 young people”. Highlighting the impact of the epidemic on the mental health of those under 30, the research of Marie Jauffret-Roustide and her colleagues has also made it possible to “move the cursor a bit”, a way of not focusing on the physical health of patients and leading to more interest in the social dimension of such a crisis.

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If the researcher believes she has a privileged status by working within Inserm, she noted the major impact of the virus on her lifestyle. Confinement or teleworking have not only given her the possibility of “getting closer” to her children or to her husband: it also gives her a glimpse “collaborations that become compatible with family life”. In recent years, underlines the sociologist, “My international projects did not have the same scope and were carried out at the cost of being several months away from my relatives. Today, it is becoming possible to carry out these projects while staying in Paris.”

The symbol of this evolution in his daily life? The implementation of a research project as with colleagues “based in different countries around the world”. No matter the time difference or the distance, “a group of 37 researchers” was formed, succeeding in setting up regular meetings which resulted in the signing of a common article. The fruit of a strengthened collaboration and a new horizon for Marie Jauffret-Roustide, who sees taking shape “new international perspectives” for the continuation of its work.

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