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Bernard Zalc, neuroscience research with a societal focus

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Bernard Zalc, neuroscience research with a societal focus

Bernard Zalc

Dr Bernard Zalc is head of the Research Center – Brain and Spinal Cord Institute (CRICMNouvelle fenêtre). Based at the Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris since 2009, this organism brings together neuroscientists from UPMC, Inserm and CNRS laboratories. Twenty years of management experience have strengthened the conviction of this multiple sclerosis specialist that it is vitally important both to maintain strong links between research and the society which supports it, and to encourage and support young upcoming scientists.

Tell us about the Inserm unit “Biology of Neurone/Glia Interactions” that you headed for 10 years.

This small unit of 50 scientists was the first in France dedicated to the study of glial cells and to use the word “glia” in its title. These cells are often defined as “accessories” of neurones in the nervous system, but their role in the functioning of the brain appears crucial. Moreover, their implication in pathological processes is significant; they can cause brain tumours called gliomas. From the beginning, the research unit aimed for quality and innovation. This led me to seek a good balance between clinical and basic research and to ensure that the latter always maintained a gateway towards a potential application. The unit supported its young scientists’ ambitious ideas by giving them the means to execute their projects swiftly. Finally, we preferred to publish a limited number of papers, but in the best journals.

Your team has worked extensively on multiple sclerosis. What have you discovered?

The following study clearly illustrates the dialog between basic and clinical research: within the framework of a study on brain development, we had demonstrated that the axonal guidance molecules, semaphorins, also control oligodendrocyte migration. These cells of the central nervous system synthesise myelin, a membrane which sheaths nerve fibers. Our discovery led us to wonder whether in multiple sclerosis, which provokes demyelination lesions, the failure to repair the lesions was caused by oligodendrocyte migration failure. We showed that, in animals, demyelination plaque is accompanied by “repulsive” Sema 3A and “attractive” Sema 3F synthesis. If we attract myelinating cells with Sema 3F, some lesions remyelinise, others do not: an excess of Sema 3A might be in play. From this research springs a potential for new therapeutic targets.

Why was the CRICM created?

In 2005, we decided to unite our teams, primarily in response to economic pressures. Pooling our funding makes it easier to acquire sophisticated and ever more expensive research equipment. Secondly, it was a way to come together and strengthen our team at the Pitié-Salpêtrière which, don’t forget, is the birthplace of clinical neurology and has developed quality research in neuroscience. Being in a purpose-built building (the ICM) facilitates meetings and makes our scientific exchanges all the more productive. We are enlarging the scientists “areopagus” for reflection and discussion on science in general and neuroscience in particular. Currently, we have a staff of 400 divided into 21 teams.

What are your main research focusses?

Our work focuses on four major themes concerning the brain and spinal cord. Firstly, the molecular mechanisms responsible for the death of neurones in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Secondly, excitability of neurones, synapse function and associated disorders such as epilepsy. The third theme concerns brain development and glial cell pathologies such as multiple sclerosis and brain tumours. Finally, we also study cognitive neuroscience: what are the mechanisms underlying word recognition, the markers of the state of consciousness, early memory disorders? We always keep in mind the applications for our research. For example, one of our teams studies movement disorders and has succeeded, through the placement of electrodes deep in the brain, in reducing these uncontrollable and paroxysmal gestures. This progress may well prove useful for managing the tics provoked by Tourette’s syndrome or walking problems caused by Parkinson’s.

What type of philosophy do you hope to instil in this research center?

First of all, encouraging communication between clinical and basic scientists, providing scientific leadership and strengthening a group spirit and sense of belonging. I am also concerned that the research center have an international and youth focus. The CRICM has twinning agreements with centers of a similar size and approach. We have agreements with the Montreal Neurological Institute, the Edinburgh University neurosciences center and the brain repair center of Cambridge. We are currently finalizing a partnership with the Istituto Neurologico Carlo Besta of Milan. Beyond collaborations between researchers, we are setting up scholarships to facilitate student and post-doc exchanges. With the “grass scientist” project, we are trying to attract high school students to research. I also make sure that the center is open to the world around us and society, with our branch in a central Paris hospital for example. I do not forget that our public funding puts us in society’s debt.


Interview by Emmanuelle Manck