Three questions for new unit director Pierre Léopold

Int Leopold et Heard

On 1 January 2019, Pierre Léopold took over from Edith Heard as the director of the Institut Curie Research Center’s Developmental Genetics and Biology Unit.

  • Pierre Léopold, before this you were working at the University of Côte d’Azur in Nice. Can you tell us a little bit about why you’ve made the move to Institut Curie?
    I used to head up the Genetics and Physiology of Growth team at the Institut de Biologie Valrose in Nice. Edith Heard first asked me to take over from her as director of her unit a few years ago. I was very tempted by the high quality of the unit’s research and the opportunity to join Institut Curie and contribute to an organization that’s leading the way in research, but the timing wasn’t right. Four years later, armed with a new ERC contract, the time seemed right and I decided to take the plunge, spurred on by lots of support from Edith and the Research Center management team.
  • How do you see Institut Curie?
    Before I arrived, I saw this research unit as one of the most appealing in France when it comes to high-quality biology research with a dynamic approach thanks to the general atmosphere that reigns at Institut Curie. With fewer than 10 teams (a fairly small number), the Developmental Genetics and Biology Unit (Inserm U934/CNRS UMR3215/Institut Curie) boasts a high-profile international reputation and tackles basic research areas in biology that are crucial to improving our medium-term understanding of physiological and cellular malfunctions that lead to illnesses and diseases.
    Along with deputy director Yohanns Bellaïche, our goal is to consolidate this unit’s position as a worldwide leader in the field, in particular by developing approaches that are linked to the physiology and systemic control aspects that play key roles in the development of human diseases.
    The Research Center’s other units and the general atmosphere here make for a highly stimulating and enriching working environment. Here at Institut Curie, you can sense that energy and resources are being channeled into developing research on an international level. Our close proximity to the hospital and patients is another added bonus. Although the unit’s focus remains heavily geared towards basic research, our researchers also investigate the potential medical applications of their work, as is the case with the teams headed up by Sylvia Fre or Raphaël Margueron, for instance.
  • And you yourself have brought along your own team. What areas will you be investigating? My new team comprises five post-doctoral researchers and two development engineers. We are currently hiring a sixth post-doctoral researcher, and PhD students will also be joining the team. We’ll be focusing on how organisms grow. In particular, we’ll be attempting to understand the links between organ growth and environmental factors, particularly nutrition. We’ll also be looking at how different body parts interact to maintain the right sizes and proportions for their species. This research will focus on studying how organs communicate via circulating molecules such as hormones. Naturally, these hormonal mechanisms responsible for managing growth come into play in tumor development. We intend to draw on our knowledge of how these mechanisms work to enhance our understanding of the relationships between tumors and their host organisms. To do so, we’ll be using a simple animal model, drosophila, a fruit fly that shares a number of similarities with humans and the genetics of which are very well known. Using this model, we’ve started work on several projects that examine the physiological links between tumors and organisms as a whole. We are particularly interested in cachexia, a wasting syndrome that involves fat and muscle atrophy that occurs in many types of cancer, the mechanisms of which are not well understood.  We are also examining how the host’s metabolism impacts on how tumors develop. It would seem, in effect, that people with diabetes are more likely to develop cancer than a person without diabetes. We will be studying these complex mechanisms thanks to simple animal models such as drosophilia. The fact that we have easy access to clinicians will also allow us to consider how we might channel this knowledge back into the medical community.