The WHO says by 2050 ultra-resistant bacteria will be the leading cause of death. French scientist Xavier Duportet may have found the solution.
"I am getting you a coffee, but I'm gonna pass because I'm already totally hyperactive," Xavier Duportet explains to me. As if not knowing what to order, he gets a Mojito-flavored 7up which he will later regret, judging by the expression on his face every time he goes for a sip. It is 9:30 AM and I am at the Pasteur Institute with Duportet, a 28-year-old French scientist who was researching insects before he ending up cultivating biological robots that could revolutionize the antibiotic market, save ten thousands of lives, and potentially cure your hellish acne.
Before meeting Xavier Duportet, I had been following the ongoing debate surrounding the future of antibiotics. In May 2013, the New York Times published an article on the swarm of bacteria that live and die in our bodies throughout our lives. This population, weighing up to two pounds, is crucial to our health and wellbeing. A lack of diversity or a proliferation of the 'wrong' kind of bacteria within our microbiota would predispose us to obesity and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases and infections. However, the diversity of these organisms seems considerably lower in the west than in non-western countries—which could be explained by dependence on and frequent use of antibiotics. Another article, published a few months before in The Fern, pointed out that current antibiotics were becoming weaker, and that the industry didn't seem to be doing much to sort the problem out, as the market was not profitable enough for investment. The author declared that with the multiplication of resistant cells, we were entering a post-antibiotic era, where the tiniest scratch could become fatal. She developed her argument using the case of Albert Alexander, one of the first people to be treated with penicillin: he scratched himself on a rose thorn and developed an infection which caused pus to gush from his scalp and necessitated his eye to be extracted from its socket. He died despite the surgery, in large part because the drug wasn't available in large quantities at the time.
According to the World Health Organization, in 2050, infections caused by ultra-resistant bacteria will be the world's leading cause of death. Antibiotics destroy everything in their path, good bacteria and bad, which unbalances the human microbiota and can lead to the spawning of new germs. Despite this issue, they are the only tools we have to fight infections. Fortunately for us, Xavier Duportet and his associate David Bikard, have come up with an alternative treatment: a biological robot, made out of DNA and proteins. Their intelligent biotic is capable of identifying bacteria that need to be killed, including those that are resistant to antibiotics.
This new wonder baptized 'eligobiotique' has already been tested successfully on mice that carried an ultra-resistant version of staphylococcus aureus, one of the deadliest bacteria in the world. Eligobiotiques could also be 'reprogrammed' to get rid of the bacteria responsible for bowel inflammation and eradicate Crohn's disease or acne. If this product turns out to be efficient, it could be used on any pathology linked to the microbiota, such as diabetes and certain types of cancer. So far, 2.4 million euros have been invested in the project and researchers are currently preparing the product to enter the market: the Eligo robot could appear in pharmacies in about seven years.
But this success has not affected Duportet's ego at all. "I am not very photogenic," he apologizes, while I look through my camera at the pictures of him I've taken quickly during our chat. He is the kind of guy you want to call Xavier instead of 'Monsieur Duportet.' He is extremely expressive, and keeps fidgeting during the interview creating a sense of bubbling enthusiasm that is extremely contagious. He knows he has a good rapport, and could probably sell you whatever he wants, but that ease doesn't feel like arrogance. He insists that I mention his friend and associate David Bikard, and wants his colleagues to appear in the pictures with him.
Duportet grew up in Lyon. His mother, a literature professor decided not to restrain him from expressing the energy and creativity that clearly fills him up to the brim and signed him up for a variety of activities to keep him busy. He started playing the piano when he was three, read a lot of Jules Verne novels—which made him dream about incredible machines, practiced sports, and played for hours in his garden. It was during those long hours outside that he started getting interested in ants. "I played lots of construction games. I'd build mountains out of food and watch them collect it all. I built them roads and labyrinths with Lego." He started building artificial anthills that he kept in his room, where he also 'pet' stick insects and 'huge' centipedes.
At school, he was very "unfocused," talked a lot, and got bored easily. "I think I spent most of my childhood alone, at the back of the classroom," he says. Teachers used to move him away from the other kids because he distracted them, but that didn't stop him from getting good marks and representing his classroom during teacher meetings. "I am lucky to have a visual memory, that really helped me to get good grades." He was moved to the grade ahead when he was seven and ended up graduating from school when he was only sixteen.
Duportet doesn't want to be presented as the classic nerd, but he admits, embarrassed, that he never really needed to write anything in his school books until university and that he only really studied the day before the exam took place. I tell him that with academic credentials like his, it's not surprising that he finds that work easy to do. But he skillfully manages to brush aside the subject, as that kind of flattery clearly doesn't interest him, and moves onto his first encounter with Bernard Mauchamp, the renown French entomologist and geneticist.
Almost from the start, Duportet showed an interest in studying insects. When he was twelve, a member of his family advised him to do an internship at Mauchamp's laboratory. "I was inspired by this great thinker when I was a kid and that was enough to make me become the man I am today." He got along very well with Mauchamp, who he describes as a "nice, passionate, and didactic" researcher who introduced the curious young Duportet to research and genetics. "At the time, [the lab] was really a pioneer: they were doing the first genetic modifications in insects." Under the microscope, Duportet watched the eyes and limbs of silkworms develop and from this moment on, he knew he would become a geneticist.
At sixteen, he moved to Paris on his own to start training at Janson de Sailly before entering AgroParisTech, a prestigious engineering school. "That was cool, I partied a lot there too," he says. The only thing that bothered him was that the school didn't motivate its students more by opening them up to the rest of the world and showing them all the amazing things they could potentially do in the future.
After finishing school, Duportet moved to New Zealand for a gap year, where he participated in the discovery of an anti-fungus molecule, which was then patented. Back in France, he started a Masters degree in synthetic biology at the CRI where he started to make a name for himself after winning the International Prize of Fundamental Research iGEM. He did three internships of three months each at the Pasteur Institute, Inria, and MIT—where he also started a thesis that took him four years to complete. At the same time, he also launched two start-ups, including "Eligo Bioscience" which was founded in May 2014. He finished his thesis in November 2014 with first class honors. Immediately after, he looked for the necessary funds to create Eligo. Luckily for him, Duportet was also a networker and loves to talk. "One needs to be curious and nurture that curiosity. When you show people that you are curious and you know how to work, everything is achievable, a lot of doors open for you."
In parallel to his thesis, he started the association 'Hello Tomorrow' with the aim to mix science, technology, and entrepreneurship, whilst accelerating innovation and technological development. "I fight to inspire curiosity. What we should do is awaken young people's curiosity, and make them want to go beyond the digital. Science is also a good way to put stuff on the market. The web is great, but it's not all there is," he says. "New technologies are developing at a tremendous speed, offering many amazing opportunities. In France, we are missing out on this. We need to show that we have lots of young entrepreneurs who want to change the world with science," he finishes.
His vocation as a researcher-entrepreneur came to him while he was at MIT, where he discovered other people with similar profiles. He soon came to realize that although research and academic work were interesting, discovering a new technology wouldn't get it out of the lab. "There are so many things to do, so many problems to resolve. If we only do research, we stop at the first step. What I prefer is to mix science with engineering: learning and practicing, making sure the theory is applicable. There are stronger constraints in applying technology to a product than to create a new technology itself: rules, time, price, there are so many things to respect," he adds.
Now at 28 years old, Duportet has already received nine prizes for five different projects—he notably received the French Innovator of the Year award from the MIT Technology Review in 2015, for his work on the future of antibiotics. To those who say he his trying his hand at too many things at the same time, he responds that he is not scared of fully stopping a project if he feels like it will start eating itself up and be fruitless. "I put pawns everywhere. It's true that I've been lucky to be a hyperactive person, otherwise I don't think it would have been easy to follow up on all of them." Normally, he averages four to five hours of sleep a night. Since he launched Eligo however, he's indulged himself with a bit more time in bed. "It's been a pretty intense year," he reflects.
But everything hasn't always come so easily to Duportet. When I ask him about the biggest mistakes he's made, he looks at me with wide-open eyes and ponders for a few seconds before telling me that his greatest errors were made when it came to recruiting. He knew nothing about it. According to Duportet, whether a project works or not is up to the team that is involved in that project. For it to succeed, you need to find the right people—preferably with whom you get along—that want to get involved. People need to be focused on the big picture goals rather than just their own egos. Hard-working and enlightened—a bit like ants. Now that the team of his dreams has been gathered, Duportet is looking forward to accomplishing the next set of milestones in his research starting with the first clinical trials on humans that will take place in the next two to three years. Even after his exhausting year, he is more focused than ever on the future.
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