Former president of world-renowned Pasteur Institute joins USF Health

Dr. Christian Bréchot will help elevate biomedical and health-related areas of research excellence to the international level

The former head of the world-renowned Pasteur Institute in Paris has joined USF Health to help university leaders strengthen biomedical and health-related areas of research excellence – and to elevate interdisciplinary signature programs to the international level.

Christian Bréchot, MD, PhD

Preeminent virologist Christian Bréchot, MD, PhD, joined the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine part time in October as senior associate dean for research in global affairs, associate vice president for international partnerships and innovation, and a professor in the Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Internal Medicine.  Dr. Bréchot is also executive director of the Tampa-based Romark Laboratories Institute for Medical Research. Since 2017, he has served as president of the Global Virus Network, a coalition of the world’s foremost medical virologists.

“Dr. Bréchot has been at the forefront of catalyzing teams of top scientists to work together effectively on global solutions for emerging pathogens, malaria and microbial infections,” said Charles Lockwood, MD, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine. “He is the ideal person to work with leadership across USF Health and USF in strategically identifying opportunities to take our infectious diseases, cardiovascular, neuroscience, and maternal-child health translational research to the next level, and to build upon the international networks he helped create at the Pasteur Institute and elsewhere to make that happen.”

Before serving as president of the Pasteur Institute from 2013 to 2017 (he stepped down at France’s mandatory retirement age of 65), Dr. Bréchot was vice president of medical and scientific affairs at Institut-Merieux, a company that develops new approaches to fight infectious diseases and cancers.  He was general director of Inserm, the French national agency for biomedical research (similar to the National Institutes of Health in the U.S.) from 2002 to 2007. As professor of hepatology and cell biology at Necker School of Medicine, Paris Descartes University, he headed the clinical department of liver diseases at Necker-Enfants Maldes Hospital from 1997 to 2001.

Dr. Bréchot has authored more than 400 articles in medical and scientific journals, and in 2005 was ranked by the Institute for Scientific Information as the 4th most cited author on the topic hepatitis C. He has been recognized as an inventor on 18 patents, and helped to create three biotechnology companies.

With a prestigious career bridging basic science and medicine, Dr. Bréchot has combined research, clinical service and teaching with top administrative posts to enhance scientific understanding and better public health. His scholarly endeavors have included cultivating productive public-private partnerships between academia and industry.

During a recent interview in his office at USF Health, Dr. Bréchot talked about leading the Pasteur Institute, a preeminent global network of 33 institutes in 26 countries; his diverse background; and his new role at USF Health.  The interview has been edited for length.

What has been your area of research focus?

As an MD-PhD, I’ve always been convinced of the need to combine basic research with clinical practice — long before translational medicine became fashionable. My basic science research has combined cell biology and molecular virology, mostly focusing on hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) and how these viruses can induce liver cancer. I’ve also been very involved in developing diagnostic tests of HBV and HBC and evaluating new drugs to treat chronic forms of the infection.  More recently, I’ve worked on the mechanisms of liver regeneration and based on longstanding research activity in my laboratory, we discovered a new molecule (HIP/PAP, or hepatocarcinoma-intestine-pancreas/pancreatic associated protein), now being tested in clinical trials as a drug that may be useful for patients with a severe form of acute and chronic hepatitis. We’re contemplating organizing new phase 2 clinical trials in China, because China has so many people with chronic hepatitis B infection.

What were some major accomplishments at the Pasteur Institute under your leadership?

First, both at Inserm and the Pasteur Institute, I was very much focused on attracting and supporting young investigators. We created programs and special funding mechanisms to really give scientists at the early stages of their careers the means to develop interdisciplinary research and then get a grant. Second, at Pasteur, we reinforced research activities, especially in the fields of bioinformatics and integrative biology. We created a Center for Bioinformatics, Biostatistics and Integrative Biology (an international multidisciplinary center for processing, analyzing and modeling biological data) that included recruiting 40 high-level engineers and opening a new building.  Third, we merged the activities of different departments focused on the microbiota. For instance, we had a program called Brain and Microbes in which scientists working on infectious agents and those working in the neurosciences looked at how the bacteria of the intestine can modulate brain function, including disorders such as anxiety and depression.

What is the microbiome, and why is it such a hot area of research interest?

The microbiota is made up of populations of bacteria, fungi, certain viruses and other microorganisms present throughout the body.  It’s actually a very old topic:  The first microbiota intervention (to treat diarrhea) was done by a Chinese doctor 3,000 years before Christ (the ancient equivalent of a fecal microbiota transplant). What’s new is our technological progress – with the capacity for genome sequencing and advances in bioinformatics, we now have the possibility to investigate the human microbiota like never before… As a result, we’ve discovered very significant connections between dysbiosis — modifications of how microbe populations are distributed in the gut, the lungs, the skin — and metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and perhaps also Alzheimer’s, and some infectious diseases where disease severity correlates with what happens to intestinal bacteria. It’s a fascinating, challenging field with applications for cross-disciplinary research and translational medicine, and where international cooperation can be extremely interesting because the link between, say for example, the microbiota and diabetes may be very different in the U.S. and Africa due to the strong influence of environmental factors such as nutrition, as well as genetic variations… So, the science of microbiota as it affects certain diseases is a very good example of a collaboration which, if organized with centers in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, could create a unique USF program very competitive with other universities.

What attracted you to the University of South Florida?

USF already has a lot of excellent ongoing research activities and in my discussions with senior leadership I found there’s real international ambition here, a desire and commitment to go further. I liked that.

Can you outline your vision for helping advance research at USF Health?

I’m still in the stage where I need to listen and learn more about the research activities to see how I can best contribute. But, initially I want to work with Dr. Lockwood, Dr. (Paul) Sanberg, Dr. (Stephen) Liggett, Dr. (John) Sinnott and other leaders to delineate which strategic research areas need to be reinforced and then contribute to the high-level recruitment of scientists. Second, we’ll increase coordination among different departments working in research areas such as the intestinal microbiota and its impact on cardiovascular, neurodegenerative and infectious diseases. Third, I hope to contribute to the international expansion of USF, building upon the networks from my previous activities including work with industry partners.

I absolutely appreciate that I will only be efficient in helping to advance research activities at USF if I integrate into the team. It’s not always easy, but it works.

Dr. Bréchot will build on global networks from his previous activities, including work with industry partners.

You have said talent is key to research excellence. Is there one predominant quality you seek in selecting top talent?

You start by looking for bright minds. But, when you must choose among five scientists all with very bright minds, enthusiasm and the capacity to integrate are critically important. I’m a fan of soccer where you need to have very talented players, but you also very much need players with team spirit. Modern science needs researchers with an interdisciplinary mode of thinking who interact well with those from other disciplines.

Some things you may not know about Dr. Bréchot:

-Each generation of Dr. Bréchot’s family, dating back to King Louis XIV of France, had at least one medical doctor.

– As a student at Pasteur Institute, he helped set up the first diagnostic test to detect hepatitis B virus in blood; he also taught the first course in molecular biology in China in 1981.

-He met his wife Paterlini Bréchot, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at Necker School of Medicine and founder of a biotech company, when she came from Italy for a postdoctoral fellowship at Necker and Pasteur Institute in Paris. His five grown children include two MD-PhDs: a daughter who is a cancer immunologist at Pennsylvania State University, and a son who directs an intensive care unit at PitiéSalpêtrière Hospital in Paris, one of Europe’s largest teaching hospitals. There are also six grandchildren, ranging from ages 1 to 11.

-Dr. Bréchot enjoys jogging, playing tennis and snow skiing. He speaks English, but still reads in French.  Currently, he’s reading about U.S. history, including biographies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

-Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications and Marketing