Francine Behar-Cohen, 2021 Innovation Prize

Francine Behar-Cohen is an ophthalmic surgeon, researcher… and creator of start-ups. What she wants is for her discoveries to leave her laboratory and provide relief to patients as quickly as possible. Her research and the value created from it have earned her the Innovation Prize.

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Portrait de Francine Behar-Cohen
Francine Behar-Cohen © Inserm / François Guénet

Start-ups to treat eye diseases

When Francine Behar-Cohen says: « I am interested in all that is innovative, » we can take her at her word – the evidence being her career marked with the creation of start-ups, novel treatments, and innovations specific to Inserm.

Her first feat of arms: the development, during her PhD in biology and her residency, of a non-invasive method of administering drugs into the eye1–2. “As the project was not mature enough for manufacturers, I created a start-up in 1999, Optis France, in order to conduct clinical trials3. Treating mice is not an end in itself! she says. I discovered another world, that of venture capital, investments, regulatory authorities, and I learned a lot on the job. »

Medicine or research, impossible to choose

When Optis France became Eyegate Pharma in the US, she left the adventure, completed her residency, passed the competitive examination to become an Inserm researcher and had to make a choice between medicine and research. Mission impossible! “In 2001, I benefited from new measures at Inserm. A liaison contract meant I could be both a doctor and a researcher. And the Avenir program gave me the means to build my team. These were two major boosts,” she emphasizes. Three years later, she was at the helm of an Inserm unit which, in 2008, joined the sixteen other teams at Cordeliers Research Center (Unit 1138 Inserm/Sorbonne Université/Université de Paris) in Paris, where she still works.

The team, a reflection of its leader – cross-disciplinary and multinational – has made multiple discoveries and patent filings. « In this area, Inserm Transfert provides invaluable, rapid, and efficient support, » says Behar-Cohen. This private subsidiary of Inserm supports its researchers in the process of creating value from their work. « And it is, among other things, thanks to Inserm Transfert Initiative, its investment fund dedicated to the initiation of start-ups resulting from this value creation, that I was able to found Eyevensys in 2008. » Eyevensys is developing a non-viral gene therapy – in which the therapeutic gene is delivered to cells without the help of a virus – resulting from the team’s research4–5; « Two former students have joined it, » she adds. Today, the company is conducting clinical trials in patients with chronic non-infectious uveitis, a rare eye disease, and is preparing others in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and retinal diseases that lead to blindness.

Photo de groupe de l'équipe de Francine Behar-Cohen, avec Jenny Youale, Emilie Picard, Francine Behar-Cohen et Laura Bénichou
Francine Behar-Cohen’s team: Jenny Youale, Emilie Picard, Francine Behar-Cohen and Laura Bénichou. Inserm Unit 1138 Physiopathology of ocular diseases at the Cordeliers Research Center © Inserm / François Guénet

Serial entrepreneur

Advisor to Eyevensys, unit director, doctor, owner of 26 patent families… Behar-Cohen would be forgiven for wanting to stop there. But no. She is preparing to create a new start-up for the repurposing in retinal diseases of molecules that are already prescribed in other indications6–7. « I am currently awaiting the application of the Pacte law passed in 2019, which allows civil servants to create a company and/or have an active status within a company, she says. More broadly, France is facilitating the creation of start-ups and researchers are sufficiently accustomed to obstacles and the unexpected to embark on this kind of adventure. However, rapid training in order to have the keys to the world of enterprise would be welcome. » A universe that Behar-Cohen is starting to become very familiar with.

Notes :
1: F. Behar-Cohen et al. Exp Eye Res., October 1997; doi: 10.1006/exer.1997.0364
2 : F. Behar-Cohen Med Sci (Paris)., June-July 2004; doi: 10.1051/medsci/2004206–7701
3: M. Halhal et al. Exp Eye Res., March 2004; doi: 10.1016/j.exer.2003.10.017
4: C. Bloquel et al. FASEB J., December 13, 2005; doi: 10.1096/fj.05–4737fje
5: É. Touchard et al. Mol Ther., January 17, 2012; doi: 10.1038/mt.2011.304
6: F. Behar-Cohen, Ophthalmologica, June 28, 2018; doi: 10.1159/000489673
7 : M. Zhao et al. Diabetes, August 23, 2021; doi: 10.2337/db21-0099