New blood to revive Inserm

March 9, 2001

The head of France's national medical research institute outlines his priorities for Jane Marshall.

Inserm, France's national institute of health and medical research, has a new leader. Last month, Christian Bréchot, a 48-year-old professor of cell biology and hepatology, took over as director-general. He is charged with developing advanced research in new areas, improving coordination and rejuvenating the workforce.

Listing Bréchot's qualifications, research minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg, said: "First, he is a great researcher with an international reputation in a field that touches on public health. Then, he is a clinician, and human contact with patients constitutes irreplaceable experience for leading a research organisation. And last, he belongs to a new generation, which I hope to see take over the responsibilities of a sector that is in the course of full renewal."

Of his appointment, Bréchot said: "The important point is that I have a double training -in both basic research and clinical research. I have been given this authority to represent a balance between the two." Such training is uncommon in France, where doctors must usually choose between the two routes. Brechot is a specialist in liver diseases and the hepatitis B and C viruses, and he pioneered research into the role of viral hepatitis in the emergence of liver cancer.

Inserm comprises a network of 300 laboratories in hospitals and universities, employing more than 10,000 researchers, engineers, technicians, administrators, doctors and students. It collaborates with other public research bodies and medical charities. Inserm works with more than 250 drugs, biotechnology and medical technology companies and backs spin-offs based on research done in its labs. Its annual budget totals €450 million (£300 million).

High-profile breakthroughs by Inserm teams announced in the past year include gene treatment for bubble babies -boys born with severe combined immunodeficiency-XI who lack the white blood cells crucial for fighting infection and must live enclosed in sterile conditions -and cell therapy for sufferers of Huntington's chorea.

In January, Schwartzenberg told directors of Inserm research units that life and health sciences were his priority, and Inserm this year was given a hefty budget rise and 74 new research posts.

Bréchot will oversee Schwartzenberg's aim of developing "advanced research on new themes, notably gene and cell therapies, but also on public health problems such as prions". Other goals are better coordination between Inserm units and between clinicians and basic researchers, and more cooperation not only with other organisations such as the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) and universities, but also the many agencies, charities and industries involved in health and medical research.

Bréchot plans to introduce taskforces that bring together specialists from different fields to make research more dynamic. "This is what we are going to do on prions, neurosciences and nutrition; there are already study groups in existence. Cancer and the environment will come afterwards," he said.

Another challenge is to replace and rejuvenate the workforce. Many researchers are due to retire in the next few years, and a steep fall in the number of science students means the pool of potential recruits is shrinking.

Bréchot believes it important to make a career in research more attractive, with more rapid promotion opportunities and better rewards. "The problem is salary; it is necessary to convince ministers that improved status for researchers is justified," he said.

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