Marie-Astrid Boutet Tackles the Early Inflammatory Mechanisms of Osteoarthritis

With her team created as part of the Atip-Avenir program, Marie-Astrid Boutet is deciphering the inflammatory mechanisms that precede joint destruction in osteoarthritis. She is convinced that characterizing them will make it possible to develop targeted therapies to prevent this disease or limit its severity. A challenge that she dreams of tackling for the millions of patients currently faced with a lack of effective treatments.

Marie-Astrid Boutet is head of the Immune Cells and Personalized Therapies for Osteoarthritis (StratOA) group within the Joint Regeneration and Pathophysiology team in the Regenerative Medicine and Skeleton unit (unit 1229 Inserm/Nantes Université/Oniris), in Nantes, France.

Pain, stiffness... Osteoarthritis handicaps the lives of nearly ten million French people. A disease that causes deterioration of the joints, and whose worsening is inevitable. There is currently no treatment that can cure or slow it down over the long term. But Marie-Astrid Boutet, Inserm researcher at the Regenerative Medicine and Skeleton (RMeS) unit in Nantes, hopes to change the game. By focusing on the study of the early inflammatory mechanisms that occur before joint destruction in people with osteoarthritis, she could pave the way for new therapies. 

A goal that she embraces with great enthusiasm because her interest in joint disease has grown unabated throughout her career. « I became enamored with this specialty! she says. Despite being less well-known than cardiovascular diseases or cancer, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other forms of rheumatism affect millions of people worldwide. The needs of patients in terms of pain relief and improved quality of life are enormous. Such a medical and economic impact, on both the individual and global levels, motivates me in my research. » The scientist also appreciates the translational aspect associated with studying these pathologies. « I like what is connected with care, and if I’m continuing along this path it’s also because of the research and clinical aspects intertwined with it. »

In fact, she did her PhD on rheumatoid arthritis under the joint supervision of a scientist and a rheumatologist. Then she headed to London to join the laboratory of Costantino Pitzalis, whom she considers « the specialist in personalized medicine for rheumatoid arthritis in EuropeHe provided me with unique data and biological samples, enabling me to study joint inflammation at its very early stages. A second post-doc took her to Milan where she specialized in the study of macrophages – immune cells found in diseased joints.

Towards Targeted Therapies

This journey has shaped the contours of her current project at Inserm, which is to describe, at cell level, the various inflammatory profiles observed in patients with osteoarthritis. « As part of my research on rheumatoid arthritis, we identified three patient subgroups based on the composition and distribution of the populations of immune cells present in the synovial membrane that lines the internal part of the joint. We then found abnormalities of the same type in osteoarthritis. With the team that I was able to put together thanks to Atip-Avenir, I now want to describe these biological signatures precisely, » she explains. And, as a bonus, she sees a way to reduce the risk of severe osteoarthritis. « Targeted therapies developed thanks to our observations could help to halt inflammation early and specifically, to prevent cartilage destruction. Doctors would finally then have effective therapeutic solutions to offer patients, » hopes the researcher.

When she looks back, Boutet surprises herself. « I’m doing a job that I wouldn’t change for the world even though I hadn’t considered it at the start of my studies! But I went from one positive surprise to another, toppling all my prejudices about research along the way, she jokes. The profession is actually much more diversified than I thought: experimentation, team management, fundraising, congresses... each day is different from the one before. Not to mention the scientific relevance and exciting encounters with people who believe in your projects. » Currently an Inserm researcher leading a team of four people, it is now her turn to give young students their chance: « With them, we have already identified early targets that will most likely lead to future therapeutic developments, » she says.