Understanding the human immune system to find a cure for HIV
e- Toile: Nicolas Chomont, you are a researcher at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida (VGTI-FL). Can you describe for us your journey before coming to this institute located in Port Saint- Lucie, Florida where you now work?
Nicolas Chomont: After I obtained my PhD in France in 2004 at the University Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris VI), I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Montreal in Quebec in the laboratory of Professor Rafick- Pierre Sékaly.
Together, we initiated a study to understand why therapies used to treat HIV infections were not able to eliminate the virus completely.
Indeed, recent treatments allow to control the infection but do not cure HIV positive patients. We published our results in 2009, which clearly showed that the virus persists in certain cells in the immune system called the «memor cells» .
It was during this period that Dr. Sékaly became co- director and scientific director of the all new VGTIFlorida in Port Saint- Lucie.
He invited me to join in this new institute as an independent researcher, an offer that I evidently accepted with enthusiasm.
This has allowed us to continue our work with HIV therapies on patients. Today, we are working on the development of new strategies for natural control of the HIV infection.
e- Toile : The mission of Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida is to study the immune system of the human being, its reactions to infectious diseases and cancers and to better understand the aging process.
With this goal, the institute has a multidisciplinary team that you and another French researcher belong to.
In this multisectoral framework, how is your work and your partner’s work articulated?
Nicolas Chomont: The VGTIFlorida is dedicated to the study and the understanding of the immune system of humans.
We use a unique approach known as biology of systems. Thus, rather than studying a single aspect of a disease (which is a biased approach), we measure thousands of parameters simultaneously using innovative technologies.
Another specific aspect of VGTIFlorida is its translational approach, we have established multiple collaborations with universities and hospitals in Florida to have access to patient samples.
In conducting our work directly with humans (rather than using an animal model), we could get more rapid progress in the understanding of immune disorders as observed in chronic infectious diseases and cancers.
The VGTFlorida brings together well known international researchers to work on different aspects of the human immune system, which allows us to establish internal collaborations that are extremely fruitful.
e- Toile: On April 27, 2012, Florida Atlantic University (FAU) welcomed Professor Françoise Barré- Sinoussi, Nobel Prize winner, Director of Research at the Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (Inserm) and Professor at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.
On this occasion, Dr. Ramaswamy Narayanan gave some examples of French-American research on AIDS such as a partnership between the University Panthéon-Sorbonne and Florida Atlantic University.
How does the institute register this transatlantic work and what are its relations with other research centers that are American, French, or others?
Nicolas Chomont: The visit of Françoise Barré Sinoussi is an excellent example of the privileged relations that the VGTI-FL has between France and other Francophone countries.
Having several Francophone researchers (from France, Quebec, Belgium, Lebanon, Marocco) at VGTIFlorida facilitates the interactions between the researchers and other countries.
For researchers working on AIDS, France has obviously a unique historical place because it was French researchers that isolated HIV in 1983 and that won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 for this discovery (Françoise Barré Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier).
France is internationally recognized for their work on HIV, and French researchers that work on HIV abroad are obviously called to collaborate with French research institutes, thus assuring a link between the welcoming country (the U.S. In our case) and France.
For example, Professor Françoise Barré Sinoussi, who is currently the president elect of the «International AIDS Society», gave me the honor of siting in on an international group of scientists whose mission was to list the research priorities in order to achieve finding a cure to eradicate HIV as soon as possible.
As part of this group, I interact regularly with many French researchers, some of whom have already visited the VGTI in Port St Lucie.
More locally, the VGTIFlorida is also involved in numerous collaborations with American universities (University of California, Emory University etc ...).
In all, we have many research programs in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry. Our translational approach to immunology greatly benefits from these collaborations and allows us to constantly keep in mind the potential benefits that our work could bring to patients.
Nicolas Chomont, PhD
9801 SW Discovery Way
Port St. Lucie, FL 34987
Article published Nov. 27, 2012.