Samira Fafi-Kremer: for the love of viruses

Franco-Moroccan, young, female... Samira Fafi-Kremer was far from having a career path that would be all mapped out. Yet her innate strength, will and curiosity have made her a respected and rewarded pillar of the scientific world. In 2021 she was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur of the French Republic, and then in 2023 was ranked by Forbes magazine as being one of the 40 women having marked that year. Success that the virologist shares today by passing on her values to a new generation of scientists, particularly women from her home country.

Samira Fafi-Kremer, Molecular Immuno-Rheumatology unit (unit 1109 Inserm/University of Strasbourg), Institut de virologie de Strasbourg. ©Inserm/François Guénet

Thinking back to her arrival in France at the age of 18, Samira Fafi-Kremer recalls: « Back then, going abroad alone for long-term studies was complicated in all respects. But I persevered, and I’m very proud of that. » Encouraged and supported by her parents who remained in Meknes, Morocco, the young woman moved to Grenoble to study pharmacy and « decipher the compositions of medicines ». Her interest in microbiology arose from an internship that brought her into contact with the hospital world. Then one thing led to another and she discovered medical virology and applied research.

Enthralled by this aspect of her speciality, she describes: « Towards the end of my internship, I did a course on the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) which I found fascinating. The professor suggested that I do a science thesis on it. As my research progressed, I literally fell in love with the virus. » Fafi-Kremer joyfully took on the clinical aspects of her research, following up the patients in her study for one year. She obtained a PhD in pharmacy and a post-graduate diploma in pharmacy in research and medical biology in 2001, followed by a PhD in science at the University of Grenoble in 2005. In October 2005, she moved to Strasbourg, where she adapted her work to studying onsite. From EBV, she switched to the hepatitis C virus, with a special interest in antibodies and organ transplant patients that has since followed her throughout her career. « It’s as enriching as it is difficult to switch from one virus to another, describes Fafi-Kremer. Once you’ve started to understand one in depth, changing to another is not without its challenges. Perhaps my only regret is not being able to continue studying my first love – EBV – but it wasn’t to be. »

One credo: optimism

In 2013, a new type of hepatitis C treatment was launched, forcing the researcher to explore new avenues. « I had to go back to the drawing board, find funding and a new area of research with only one student, who was in the second year of her Masters. There were some extremely difficult times, especially being young and female at the start of one’s career, you have a lot of doubts, she recalls. It was a real challenge. But, passionate about my subject, I cracked on without worrying about the difficulties I might encounter, with one credo: optimism. »

Fafi-Kremer then delved into the world of a little studied but very widespread virus – the BK virus – which owes its name to the initials of the first patient in whom it was identified. Quiescent in over 90% of the general population, it tends to reactivate in a context of reduced immunity. Its pathogenic power is expressed mainly in kidney transplant patients, something that the researcher is very familiar with. « Everything had yet to be done, she recalls. We didn’t know who was really at risk of serious infection with BK, or how to prevent the infection or treat it once was established. I was lucky. My hospital activity and proximity to nephrologists enabled me to study transplant patients in a real-world setting. The problems encountered were an endless source of research ideas: the first was aimed at finding a marker capable of identifying patients at risk. » With each new discovery, Fafi-Kremer’s team grew and thrived. It obtained a variety of funding – for example, from the French National Research Agency to develop an antiviral treatment with Pascal Poignard’s team in Grenoble, for which they are currently awaiting the approval of a patent.

At the same time, in early 2020, Fafi-Kremer and her team found themselves on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. Alsace was one of the first regions in France to be affected by the pandemic, propelling her laboratory to the front line. « As head of the Virology Department, I had to reorganise everything with my team to set up the test platform in the hospital for the whole of Alsace, » she recalls. But even in times of crisis, Fafi-Kremer did not forget her love of viruses and medical discoveries. Supported by her colleagues, she pushed to set up a clinical project that monitors infected patients and studies their humoral response – i.e. adaptive immunity through the production of antibodies. In collaboration with Institut Pasteur, she has shown that women have longer immunity than men to the novel coronavirus. She explains: « For a virologist, being able to study a virus at the very beginning of its discovery, in real time, is a rare and exciting opportunity. With other viruses, we learn about and understand them from books. With COVID, we were making discoveries on the ground every day. It was exhilarating. »

Inspiring beyond borders

In December 2020, after 23 years of services to the health sector, Fafi-Kremer was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur of the French Republic. « It was an unforgettable moment, she describes. I was surrounded by all my relatives and colleagues, all those who had helped and supported me. For a female researcher from a foreign country, receiving the highest French distinction is a source of huge pride, a recognition of my career and a model that I hope will provide inspiration beyond borders. » An example that the scientist wishes to uphold. She contributes to the promotion of women in research in her country of origin through collaborations and interventions within the Medical and Scientific Competencies of Moroccans Abroad network. « It’s important to encourage women, she proclaims. We can do anything: have a long career, have children and take on great responsibilities. But you have to believe in yourself, and remain optimistic! Our Moroccan culture is an invaluable asset that we must be proud of. But beyond our origins, beyond our sex, if we stick to our dreams and persevere, we can get there. » A message heard by U.S. magazine Forbes, which included Fafi-Kremer in its ranking of the 40 women who marked 2023, a new source of inspiration for generations of researchers – of both sexes – to come.

Samira Fafi-Kremer is a researcher in the Molecular Immuno-Rheumatology unit (unit 1109 Inserm/University of Strasbourg), Institut de virologie de Strasbourg.