Our immune system naturally produces antiviral proteins when viral infection strikes. A phenomenon that Caroline Goujon has been studying for almost fifteen years in a quest to discover these much talked-about antivirals and how they work. Promising research for which she has recently obtained a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant.
Potent natural antivirals exist within our very own cells. Caroline Goujon knows this and has been studying them for several years in a quest to one day use them as a weapon against viral infections. Currently based at the Infectious Disease Research Institute of Montpellier (IDRIM), Caroline Goujon never imagined that she would become a researcher. Following an advanced technician’s certificate (BTS) in biological analysis, it was during an internship in a virology research laboratory at the Cochin Institute that everything clicked into place. Immediately passionate about the life of viruses and fascinated by their ability to hijack cell mechanisms in order to multiply, she was keen to find out more. That was it – she had her leitmotif.
She continued her scientific studies at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, obtained her Master's and prepared her Ph.D. there. Her thesis topic concerned dendritic cell resistance to HIV-1. "These cells are naturally not very permissive to this virus, and I discovered that a HIV-2 protein was capable of rendering them sensitive to the infection. In fact, we now know that these cells produce a specific protein that restricts the infection, and which is broken down by HIV-2", she explains. An initial success that led her to the UK, to a renowned retrovirology laboratory at King’s College London.
A major publication that would open many doors
A Marie Curie Intra-European fellowship funded her postdoc - to study host immune cell responses to HIV. She researched the role of the interferons produced by the infected cells. These molecules induce the expression of hundreds of genes in various immune cells, thereby leading to the production of antiviral proteins. By studying these genes activated by the interferons in various cell types, she discovered the major role of protein MX2, a potent antiviral agent that blocks a key step in the HIV replication cycle. This finding, which led to her being published in Nature in 2013, opened many doors. "This success clearly helped me obtain an Inserm researcher position and an ATIP-Avenir grant to form my own team, in addition to funding from ANRS and Sidaction", she says.
Following that, she continued to explore the role of MX2, as well as that of MX1 - another antiviral protein expressed in humans and able to inhibit the flu virus. "These molecules have been studied at length, but no-one knows how they work! In addition, I'm continuing with the identification of the genes activated by the interferons so as to discover other anti-infection proteins. It must be understood that while we're all in possession of these natural antivirals, they only begin to be produced after the infection. If they were already present before the arrival of the virus, they'd effectively block the infection", she says.
With a fascinating subject and a skilled team, the conditions were optimal for Caroline Goujon to obtain an ERC grant in 2017. And with 1.5 million euros funded over five years, she has continued to reinforce her team in order to work on identifying and characterizing antiviral effectors against the flu and HIV viruses. "Five years to devote to science without having to seek new funding? What more could I ask for?" , she concludes.
Find out more about Caroline Goujon
Caroline Goujon leads the ATIP-AVENIR Interferon and antiviral restriction team at the Infectious Disease Research Institute of Montpellier (IDRIM, CNRS Joint Research Unit 9004).