Charlotte Proudhon: Bringing Epigenetics and Cancer Screening Together

Charlotte Proudhon is a pure geneticist. For over fifteen years, she worked in laboratories specializing in the study of DNA until 2022 when she obtained funding from the European Research Council to set up her own Inserm team. Her objective? Use her knowledge to develop a universal cancer screening test requiring just a blood sample.

At the Research Institute for Environmental and Occupational Health in Rennes, Charlotte Proudhon and her team are hoping to develop a universal and non-invasive cancer screening technique. Analyzing a simple blood sample would make it possible to know if a patient has cancer and if so, where it is located. Known as a « liquid biopsy », this advance would mark an unprecedented turning point in fighting the disease. Proof that she is not the only one to believe in this, Proudhon obtained European funding of €1.5 million (over 5 years) to accelerate her project EpiDetect (Detecting epigenetic biomarkers in the blood for non-invasive precision oncology).

A success that she owes most particularly to her specialization in epigenetics, which she has turned into an asset to bring about innovation in cancer screening. « Many high-performance laboratories and companies with significant resources are already working in this area. This quest for a non-invasive and easy-to-access cancer screening tool has been fraught with competition for the past decade, but I’m developing a niche strategy. These players tend more to be medical doctors with expertise in oncology, a profile that is quite different to mine. So their approaches are different: while they are looking for mutations that reveal a specific cancer in the DNA fragments of tumor origin that circulate in the blood, I’m tracking epigenetic markers that are characteristic of cancers and their location, explains the researcher. In the long run, perhaps these two approaches will complement each other.” Epigenetics is an additional layer of information about the coding sequence of DNA. It leaves traces that modify gene expression and gives each cell or group of cells in the body particularities in relation to others. This mechanism is active throughout life, with changes that occur continuously in response to changes in state or environment. This means that all cancer cells also carry specific epigenetic markers. Therefore it is useful to look for them in the DNA derived from these cells, which is found in the blood of patients.

The Importance of a Network

If Proudhon is able to tackle this challenge, it is thanks to the expertise she has accumulated for over fifteen years. She has a senior diploma in genetics, a PhD in epigenetics prepared at the Jacques-Monod Institute of Genetics and Institut Curie in Paris, followed by a post-doc on the three-dimensional organization of DNA, which she did at New York University. « I’ve always liked biology, since high school. But I was unfamiliar with the profession of researcher back then. Although I went into medicine, it was to do biology: I had no intention of receiving patients!” she recalls. It was finally when she embarked on her senior diploma in genetics that she really discovered the world of research. She wanted to work on embryonic development as part of her PhD and was recruited for that to a unit of the Monod Institute, a member of the European Epigenome Network of Excellence. « Back then in 2006, not that many labs were interested in this aspect of genetics. Which meant I was immediately immersed in a very stimulating and friendly world of researchers who shared a common interest in a new subject. It was great for a young researcher.” The network she then began to form was, according to her, the key that enabled her to do high-quality research: « As a researcher you can’t work well in a vacuum. You learn from others, they influence you, you share your findings and doubts, and these interactions move you forward. Also, the scientific community uses social media: it communicates and reacts much more fluidly and spontaneously on its findings, which are now presented even before being published in journals, » she points out. It is also through networking that careers are formed: she was recommended for her post-doc in the USA, and now she herself has recruited people recommended to her for her own team. « It makes it easier to identify those who are competent and with whom we’re more likely to get on well. Which is very important in a research team because we work enormously hard, we’re very committed, and work in close proximity. The personality of each individual is crucial to creating an effective and pleasant group. I would also say that it’s necessary in order to be creative. However, it is in a relaxed and convivial environment, in which everyone can share their comments and mistakes, that new ideas emerge. »

When she looks back, Proudhon is almost surprised. Now this mother to two young children leads a team of six people with a large budget and ambitious goals. “And, yes, it’s very time-consuming! But I’ve got here and I’m pretty proud! Despite a certain lack of self-confidence during my first few years as a researcher, I dared to move forward and achieve milestones. Although becoming a European Research Council grantee gave me a brief sense of imposter’s syndrome, it eventually gave way to self-confidence, » she notes. This does not exempt her from tasks that she considers time-consuming but essential: preparing regular evaluations or publishing in high-impact journals to strengthen her reputation... Proudhon can finally assert that she is one of the scientists who, « thanks to public research, advances knowledge without aiming to profit directly – for the benefit of society, » she enthuses.

Proudhon leads the Circulating (Epi)markers team at the Research Institute for Environmental and Occupational Health (Irset, unit 1085 Inserm/Université d’Angers/Université de Rennes 1/EHESP), Rennes.