The Institut Pasteur focuses on the threat of emerging diseases : No. 50, December 2012

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To face up to the current and future threat to humanity posed by emerging diseases, the Institut Pasteur has equipped its researchers with cutting-edge tools and a multidisciplinary centre to further the dissemination and exchange of knowledge. The result is the François Jacob centre, which was inaugurated in Paris on 14 November.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a new disease emerges in the world every year. An unprecedented rate, which is partly explained by contemporary life. “Microbes, bacteria, parasites, fungal infections and viruses have never before travelled so much,” points out Professor Alice Dautry, Director General of the Institut Pasteur. “Which is the reason for the project to open a centre dedicated to the study of new diseases and the founding of the François Jacob centre”.

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Particles of AIDS virus on the surface of a lymphocyte © Institut Pasteur

Inaugurated in Paris on 14 November 2012, the centre can accommodate nearly 400 researchers in a working area of 15,900 m2 (on a 4,500 m2 footprint). The first stone of the François Jacob centre – named after the researcher and Nobel laureate of the Institut Pasteur who laid the foundations for molecular biology – was laid in 2008. The entire construction therefore took four years and benefited from a total budget of €61 million. Of this, public subsidies accounted for €23 million. The rest came from the Institut Pasteur’s own funds and its donors.

The full set of staff is not yet in place but the teams are already at work. They include, for instance, the “Regulation of Retroviral Infections” unit, led by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008, and Director of Research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. In particular, Professor Barré-Sinoussi is exploring the early mechanisms for natural control of HIV infection. The “Human Evolutionary Genetics” unit, directed by Lluis Quintana-Murci, Laboratory Director at the Institut Pasteur, has also begun its work. The aim of this researcher and his team is to try to retrace the natural evolution of diseases by studying the variability of the human genome on a global scale.

The Institut Pasteur, both in Paris and through the Institut Pasteur International Network, has historically taken action against infectious diseases; this is a valuable asset for sharing and exchanging knowledge. “The idea is to promote interaction between the different disciplines to favour the exchange of ideas and generate original approaches to research,” Alice Dautry continues. “Scientists from all over the world will have their place. The centre also offers a space for use by newly formed teams and a centre with highly efficient, cutting-edge facilities, which is unique in Europe.

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National Institute of hygiene and epidemiology, Hanoi © Institut Pasteur International Network (RIIP)

But what is the reason behind such a project? Emerging diseases pose a genuine threat to the global population. “Emerging diseases are all those diseases which appear for the first time in human populations,” explains Arnaud Fontanet, head of the Emerging Diseases Epidemiology Unit. “They are also old diseases or diseases that have practically disappeared, which re-emerge or colonise new geographical areas. They are usually infectious, in other words they are due to microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. What impact do they have? In addition to the death and pain they cause, these pathologies have repercussions on all sectors of society: economic slowdown, hindrance to the circulation of goods and people, etc.

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Virus de la grippe pandémique A (H1N1) © Institut Pasteur

Every five years, humanity suffers a major crisis due to the emergence or re-emergence of a virus. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was the first serious transmissible disease of the 21st century. First observed in China at the end of 2002, the epidemic broke out worldwide in 2003 and led to nearly 800 deaths. An unprecedented international mobilisation enabled it to be checked by isolation and quarantine measures. The coronavirus which caused the epidemic, unknown until that time, was quickly identified. Flu viruses, which are particularly contagious and have a genome that presents strong mutagenic potential, are serious candidates for the emergence of a global epidemic. Indeed these viruses have been responsible for major health disasters over the centuries. The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 was the most disastrous flu epidemic ever documented, causing the death of 20 million people worldwide.

Delphine Barrais

Websites:

Institut Pasteur: www.pasteur.fr

publie le 28/12/2012

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