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Environmental Factor, August 2012

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NIEHS hosts French delegation

By Eddy Ball

Thierry Damerval, Ph.D.

Damerval spoke with enthusiasm about the Inserm vision for moving forward with the highest quality health research. He said that leaders in French life science and medical research are working to fulfill a mandate from the French public, to better understand how environmental influences impact health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Inserm Chief Scientific Counselor Jean-Marc Egly, Ph.D.

Under the leadership of Egly, who is an international leader in the area of DNA repair, Damerval said that standards for Inserm-funded research have achieved new heights. Egly acknowledged the need to educate the French public about the environmental health sciences. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS leadership welcomed representatives of the French national health and medical research institute Inserm June 27, and heard a presentation by them on “Recent Changes in French Life Sciences and Health Research: Opportunities for Cooperation.”

Inserm, which is analogous to NIH, but on a much smaller scale with an annual budget of approximately one billion dollars, is reassessing its role in environmental health research, as part of its 2010-2015 strategic plan, and looking for guidance from the leadership and top scientists working at NIEHS. The organization is part of the French National Alliance for Life Sciences and Health (Aviesan), formed in 2009. 

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Representing Inserm were presenters Deputy Director-General Thierry Damerval, Ph.D., and Chief Scientific Counselor Jean-Marc Egly, Ph.D., as well as Mireille Guyader, Ph.D., director of Inserm’s U.S. office. Along with their presentation, the Inserm delegation met with NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Deputy Director Rick Woychik, and several of the Institute’s senior lead researchers, including Samuel Wilson, M.D., Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D., Darryl Zeldin, M.D., John Bucher, Ph.D., Rick Paules, Ph.D., and Stavros Garantziotis, M.D.

Expanding the environmental focus of Inserm-funded research

“Inserm is the only French public research organization to focus entirely on human health,” Damerval said, as he began his presentation and pointed to differences between Inserm’s institutes without walls and U.S. health research organizations.

“We don’t have our own campus [infrastructure],” he explained. “All of our labs and research are located inside university hospitals and university campuses.”

At the 83 French universities where Inserm funds programs, research ranges from basic through clinical, translational, and technology transfer, to public-private intellectual property development and public health. Inserm has pinpointed three priorities in its national strategy for research and innovation:

  • Health, welfare, food, and biotechnologies
  • Information and communication, nanotechnologies
  • Environment and eco-technologies

Asked by Wilson about Inserm’s interests in environmental health, Damerval looked to advancing human and environmental toxicology, and pointed to the French public’s concerns about genetically modified organisms, chemical exposures, and nuclear energy. The group’s strategic plan also focuses on the rise in noncommunicable diseases, such as metabolic, neurological, and cardiovascular disease with known or suspected involvement of environmental exposures, as well as the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases.

“Before, making good science was enough,” Damerval said. “Now making good science is necessary, but we need also to have different organizational means to develop the other part [its application in public health and prevention].”

In his talk, Damerval struck several themes familiar to his NIEHS audience. Like its counterparts in the U.S., Inserm recognizes that research in the emerging new biology will need to be cross-disciplinary, international, and integrated. Damerval said that medicine will increasingly have to focus on the molecular anticipation of disease, before the appearance of perceptible symptoms.

Inserm has adopted the NIH 4 P’s paradigm, to guide medicine that will be predictive, personalized, preemptive, and participatory, as well as take increasing account of ethical considerations.

During the question and answer segment of the presentation, NIEHS scientists asked Damerval about some of the concerns the U.S. and France share. These included privacy considerations in access to databases, recruitment and retention of physician scientists, cultivating the next generation of biomedical researchers, and the relationship between basic and clinical research.

Birnbaum closed the event with a prediction about a productive relationship between Inserm and NIEHS for the future. “We look forward to many future interactions,” she said, holding out the promise for more sharing of ideas and possibly research collaborations to come.

Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D., and Mireille Guyader, Ph.D.

Shown in the audience are Kunkel, center, and Guyader, right, who will host Birnbaum’s planned visit to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Stavros Garantziotis, M.D.

Garantziotis, who is both a basic and clinical researcher, wanted to learn more about how Inserm, with its national network of clinical research, facilitates the kinds of collaborations he has helped develop at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Inserm Deputy Director-General Thierry Damerval, Ph.D., and NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

As the presentation host, Birnbaum introduced Damerval and moderated questions from the audience. She was the leader of the Office of the Director initiative that brought the Inserm delegation to NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Samuel Wilson, M.D., Jean-Marc Egly, Ph.D., and Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D.

Wilson, left, made notes as he, Egly, and Kunkel, in background, listened to Damerval’s description of the range of research supported by Inserm. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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