For Justine Bertrand-Michel, who directs the MetaToul platform for metabolites analysis, helping researchers is a noble activity. A conviction she has put into practice for over twenty years and for which she has been awarded the Research Support Prize.
Supporting research whatever the cost
« I had always wanted to work in health biology, explains Justine Bertrand-Michel who since 2021 directs the metabolomics platform MetaToul, which is used to analyze metabolites (compounds derived from the metabolism of all living things – glucose, amino acids, nucleotides, etc.). But the chemistry that I discovered during my studies was a tool that I thought might be useful in this field. » This led to her chemistry dissertation in the molecular biophysics laboratory in Bordeaux, where she obtained the role of research engineer at Inserm in 1995 – the first year of her doctorate. In addition to her research, she used to synthesize RNA and DNA for the team’s researchers, which led to her second revelation: « I liked this activity more than ‘pure’ research. » Following this initial fundamental experience, the engineer and her husband wanted to move. This coincided with a vacant position at the Claude de Préval Inserm federative research institute in Toulouse, which involved setting up a platform to analyze lipids. « Although I knew nothing about lipids, I was enthusiastic, » she remembers. Six months after her arrival in February 2003, the « lipid mediators analysis platform » was up and running.
When there is strength in unity
Although the activity rapidly gathered momentum, it remained hampered by a lack of resources with only two analytical machines available. A situation shared by her colleagues who were analyzing other metabolites. Under the leadership of Jean-Charles Portais, scientific director of the metabolic networks analysis platform, they joined forces and in 2007 founded MetaToul, bringing together five platforms distributed across the same number of sites. Their first victory came in 2009 when they obtained IBiSA (Infrastructures in biology, health and agronomy) accreditation, which brought with it significant resources. « That was our entry into the big league, » recalls Bertrand-Michel. But such accreditation was not without its constraints: quality approach, deadlines, invoicing, evaluation... And the teams also had to learn to work together. So structuring MetaToul took time. Continuing this approach, the Toulouse platform joined MetaboHUB when it was founded in 2013. This national infrastructure brought together the five IBiSA-accredited metabolomics platforms. « It was kind of the second stage of the rocket, and very important in terms of both science and resources to take our methods further, » she points out. Today, Meta-Toul is France’s largest platform, with 6 teams, some 40 engineers, 23 analysis systems and 4 robots. « A good scientific competitive spirit prevails through shared developments, inter-site projects, monthly events, annual scientific days held off-site, » emphasizes its director.
A delicate economic equation
Nevertheless, the chemist acknowledges that facilitating this huge platform and leading her site dedicated to studying lipids is sometimes stressful. « We need to offer services, develop methods, and train new staff, while at the same time balancing the budget! The economic model of our structures is complex, she describes. But I love what I do and find all the researchers’ projects exciting! » This unwavering support has earned her the Inserm prize that she is delighted to receive. « It is of course first and foremost recognition of the teams’ dedication to the researchers, she says. But I also see in it a means of advancing the platforms, which have now become essential to research. »