Meet the 28-Year-Old Geneticist Fighting the Future of Superbugs
The World Health Organization says by 2050, infections caused by ultra-resistant bacteria will be the leading cause of death, but this French scientist may have found the solution.
This article originally appeared on VICE France.
"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 Paris's Pasteur Institute with Duportet, a 28-year-old French scientist who used to research insects before 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'd 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 2 pounds—is crucial to our health and well-being. 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 our 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 that 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.
"I played lots of construction games with my pet ants. I'd build mountains out of food and watch them collect it all. I built them roads and labyrinths with Legos."
According to the World Health Organization, infections caused by ultra-resistant bacteria will be the world's leading cause of death by 2050. 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 that 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 strains of 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, $2.7 million has 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. 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 David Bikard, and he wants his colleagues to appear in the pictures with him. He is extremely expressive and creates a sense of bubbling enthusiasm that is extremely contagious.
Duportet grew up in Lyon, France, where his mother, a literature professor, 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 Legos," Duportet remembers. He started building artificial anthills that he kept in his room, where he also housed "pet" stick insects and "huge" centipedes.
At school, he says 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. "I am lucky to have a visual memory, that really helped me to get good grades," he says. He was moved to the grade ahead when he was seven and ended up graduating from school when he was only 16.
Duportet doesn't want to be presented as the classic nerd, but admits, embarrassed, that he never really needed to write anything in his school books until college 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 and moves onto his first encounter with Bernard Mauchamp, the renown French entomologist and geneticist.
"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."
When Duportet was 12, a member of his family advised him to do an internship at the laboratory of renowned entomologist and geneticist, Bernard Mauchamp. "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," Duportet says. "At the time, [Mauchamp] was really a pioneer: [His lab was] doing the first genetic modifications in insects." From the moment Duportet watched the eyes and limbs of silkworms develop under the microscope, he knew he would become a geneticist.
After studying at AgroParisTech and Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire, Duportet won the International Prize of Fundamental Research iGEM. He then went on to do three internships at Pasteur Institute, Inria, and MIT—where he also launched two startups, including "Eligo Bioscience." He also started the association Hello Tomorrow with the aim to mix science, technology, and entrepreneurship, while accelerating innovation and technological development.
To those who say he is 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."
At MIT, he soon came to realize that although research and academic work were interesting, just 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 says.
Now at 28, 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.
"I fight to inspire curiosity. What we should do is awaken young people's curiosity, and make them want to go beyond the digital," 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."
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 before telling me that his greatest errors were made when it came to recruiting. 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, people who you get along with and are focused on the big picture rather than just their own egos. Hardworking 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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- antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- Medical Care
- VICE International
- Crohn's Disease
- World Health Organization
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- Xavier Duportet
- Pasteur Institute
- David Bikard
- Eligo robot
- International Prize of Fundamental Research iGEM
- Hello Tomorrow
- MIT Technology Review