On Oct. 11, 2017, five young scientists at the Institut Pasteur received 2017 L'Oréal-UNESCO "For Women in Science" Fellowships. Through their research, the three postdoctoral fellows and two PhD students are helping to advance scientific knowledge in the fields of child malnutrition, the immune system, vaccination, emerging diseases and psychotic disorders. These fellowships, awarded to thirty outstanding scientists each year, will offer greater visibility to the female scientists at the Institut Pasteur and to the "Pasteur-Paris University International Doctoral Program", of which two of the laureates are alumnae.
On October 11, 2017, five young scientists at the Institut Pasteur received 2017 L'Oréal-UNESCO "For Women in Science" Fellowships. Each year, the L'Oréal Foundation, in partnership with the French Academy of Sciences and the French National Commission for UNESCO, awards Fellowships to thirty young female scientists who are helping advance the frontiers of research in France. Ten PhD students and twenty postdoctoral fellows are selected for their outstanding research. The program is designed to support them in their research and as they pursue their scientific career.
Two of this year's winners are graduates of the Pasteur-Paris University International Doctoral Program (PPU), launched in 2009 by the Institut Pasteur and co-funded by the EU's FP7 and Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie programs. The PPU was set up to provide training for young scientists in the fields of life sciences and biomedicine, in keeping with the Pasteurian tradition of pursuing outstanding research with the aim of improving health across the world. The PPU program is a three-year PhD program. Students from all over the world come to France to pursue their research at the Institut Pasteur, while being enrolled on a PhD at one of the Institut Pasteur's partner universities in Paris (UPMC, Paris Descartes University, Paris Sud University, Paris Diderot University and Paris-Saclay University).
The five scientists awarded 2017 L'Oréal-UNESCO "For Women in Science" Fellowships for their outstanding research at the Institut Pasteur are the PhD students Juliette Fédry and Ai Ing Lim and the postdoctoral fellows Fani Koukouli, Blandine Monel and Pascale Vonäsch. Through their research, they are helping advance scientific knowledge in the fields of child malnutrition, the immune system, vaccination, emerging diseases and psychotic disorders. Their discoveries are laying the foundations for the development of new treatments for several diseases.
Juliette Fédry - Paving the way for the development of new vaccines:
Since the 20th century, we have known that the fertilization of an egg by a sperm is the key stage in sexual reproduction. But much still remains to be elucidated about this process, especially concerning the molecule that induces the fusion of the membranes of these two cells to form a fertilized egg cell. Juliette Fédry, a PhD student in the Institut Pasteur's Structural Virology Unit, is trying to shed light on these questions. The young scientist from Lyon is fascinated by the protein HAP2, a molecule needed for fertilization in plants, algae, many invertebrate animals and some parasites such as the malaria agent. "By determining the atomic structure of HAP2, I showed that it is the first known molecule to fuse the sperm and egg membranes in several living species." The research carried out by Juliette Fédry and her colleagues revealed an unexpected resemblance between the structure of the HAP2 fertilization protein and the structure of proteins that enable viruses like Zika or chikungunya to infect cells. This suggests that viruses may be at the origin of sexual reproduction on earth, or conversely that these viruses may have acquired the fertilization molecule to infect their target cells more effectively. This new understanding about the molecular mechanism behind fertilization is therefore vitally important. It will help pave the way for the development of new vaccines to tackle several parasites, including the malaria parasite, by blocking their sexual reproduction and thereby stopping them from spreading. It brings us one step closer to the extinction of these agents that are pathogenic for humans.
Fani Koukouli - Could nicotine be used to combat schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a condition which is still poorly understood today and which disrupts the lives of almost 51 million people over the age of 18 worldwide. Fani Koukouli is a young Greek postdoctoral researcher who is passionate about sailing in the Mediterranean and works with the Integrative Neurobiology of Cholinergic team at the Institut Pasteur. She has dedicated her research to this pathology, which has huge implications from medical, economic and social perspectives for patients and their relatives. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of the brain that is especially associated with decision making and short-term memory, shows neuronal activity which decreases in people with psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. This cerebral deficit is due to a genetic anomaly in the nicotinic receptors which are present in the PFC, correlated with the fact that 80 to 90% of schizophrenia patients are smokers. During experiments in which she recreated this cerebral deficit, the young researcher was able to demonstrate that the repeated administration of nicotine helps re-establish neuronal activity in individuals affected by schizophrenia. "The aim of my research at the moment is to test different molecules which act on the nicotinic receptors and enable nerve cells to return to normal activity without the harmful effects associated with nicotine." At the same time, she is leading a major project investigating the role of nicotinic receptors in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia and affects 44 million people. Her work also forms the basis of new pharmaco-therapeutic strategies.
Ai Ing Lim - Zooming in on immune system intelligence:
The immune system is made up of a collection of cells whose role is to defend the body. They include the recently identified "innate lymphoid cells" (ILC), which play a major role in the initial phases of the immune response. Ai Ing Lim, from Muar in Malaysia, was able to pursue her studies in science thanks to the support of her family. Now a PhD student with the Innate Immunity Unit at the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the young researcher is working to achieve better characterization of ILCs. Through her research, she identified and isolated from human blood, a particular type of cell which can develop into four different types of ILC, and can therefore be considered an "ILC precursor" cell: "This work enabled me to come up with a new ILC genesis model in which the precursor cells circulating in the blood adapt their mechanism of action depending on the type of tissue they penetrate." Using ILC precursors, it is now possible to manufacture different types of ILC that could be used in cell therapy to treat infectious diseases, allergies and some cancers.
Blandine Monel - Research to effectively tackle the Zika virus:
Over the past few years, the Zika virus has shot to infamy. First discovered in 1947, the virus gave rise to a recent global outbreak that caused neurological disorders and brain development abnormalities in fetuses. In 2016, more than 16,000 cases were confirmed in Martinique alone. To date, no treatment or vaccine is capable of curbing this virus. Blandine Monel, a postdoctoral fellow in the Institut Pasteur's Virus and Immunity Unit, is trying to shed light on how the Zika virus acts, especially how it destroys human cells. "We recently discovered that Zika viruses isolated in Africa were killing human cells using an impressive process known as "paraptosis". One the cell has been infected, it develops vacuoles, or cavities, that expand until the cell implodes and dies." This process appears to be unique - it has not been observed in related viruses such as dengue. How does the Zika virus kill these cells? What defense mechanisms does the host have to protect against this process? The young scientist, who previously worked tirelessly on the HIV virus for six years, is trying to answer these questions with the aim of paving the way for new therapeutic strategies that might improve host resistance and help reduce the incidence of Zika virus disease in the long term.
Pascale Vonäsch - Studying microbiota to combat malnutrition:
Throughout the world, one in four children is affected by growth retardation, predominantly in Africa and Asia. The number one cause of this growth retardation is chronic undernutrition. Chronic undernutrition creates the perfect conditions for infection and therefore seriously hampers the normal development of these children. It can even have serious consequences into adulthood. There is no effective treatment at the present time. The causes of this undernutrition are many, however Pediatric Environmental Enteropathy (PEE) syndrome appears to play a major role in the condition. PEE is a chronic inflammation of the small intestine, the main part of the body where nutrients are absorbed, and leads to a diminished nutrient absorption capacity. It is thought that an imbalance in the intestinal flora, known as "microbiota", may be one of the key factors in this syndrome. Pascale Vonäsch, a postdoctoral researcher in the Molecular Microbial Pathogenesis Unit at the Institut Pasteur, has been focusing her research on PEE: "The aim of my project is to study intestinal flora in young children aged 2 to 5, who are and are not suffering from malnutrition, in Bangui (Central African Republic) and Antananarivo (Madagascar). " The young Swiss researcher hopes to understand more about this syndrome in order to combat undernutrition, her dream being to "one day alleviate the extreme poverty and situations of hopelessness faced by many, the majority even, of children in this world".