Priscille Brodin spies on pathogens

As a young researcher, Priscille Brodin developed a unique technique for observing the mechanisms of infection with pathogens. She drew on this to obtain an ERC Starting Grant to study tuberculosis. Today she continues to use it to work on other infectious agents.

Priscille Brodin

Priscille Brodin is a formidable opponent. She doesn’t let pathogens out of her sight for a minute as she spies on them constantly with her “voyeur robot”. That’s why the European Research Council awarded her a grant.

In 2005, having completed a pharmacology PhD thesis focusing on HIV, Priscille Brodin was hired by Inserm, joining the Unit led by Stewart Cole at the Institut Pasteur, in Paris. However it wasn’t long before she was packing her bags for Korea: the Institut Pasteur and the Korean government had just created the Institut Pasteur Korea, where she was put in charge of the team dedicated to anti-tuberculosis drug research. It was there that she developed a unique process for observing the infectious agent Mycobacterium tuberculosis: high-throughput cell imaging. “I didn’t invent the microscope itself, but the application”, she says jokingly. “The application combines microplate supports and specific marking, making it possible to monitor the behavior of bacteria in a cell population in real time. You can thus obtain thousands of images of this process, with structural and functional information”, she explains. “We used to have cameras with films and we took 24 photos every six months. Now we have our smartphones and we take 24 photos in 5 minutes. It’s the same with this: high-throughput imaging allows us to gather a mountain of information in a short space of time.” The process is so innovative that Inserm called her five years later to have her bring it to France. It was then that she decided to apply for European Research Council funding. She secured her Starting Grant in 2010, worth €2 million over five years.

Tuberculosis and Buruli ulcer

The grant allowed her to set up her own team and install an automated high-throughput microscope in the biocontainment laboratory (P3) at the Institut Pasteur in Lille. She studied the virulence factors of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, as well as the way the bacteria penetrate macrophages and exploit their machinery for their own purposes. She also tested new antibacterial compounds, as an alternative to current antibiotics that have become ineffective against multiresistant tuberculosis.

She also obtained a further €1 million via the Investissements d’avenir (Investments for the Future) program. Enough to extend her research to include other pathogens, in particularMycobacterium ulcerans, responsible for Buruli ulcer. This disease is associated with very extensive, but relatively painless, skin lesions. Her high-throughput imaging technique enabled Priscille Brodin to observe why they are painless: it appears that the bacteria secretes a toxin that anesthetizes the nerves around the lesions, via an original mechanism. A discovery that paves the way for the development of new analgesics.

Her “voyeur robot” also enables other researchers to study different viruses, parasites and other microbes, particularly the hepatitis C virus and Toxoplasma gondii, the agent responsible for toxoplasmosis.

Priscille Brodin is currently continuing her research focusing on the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in the interactions between mycobacteria and host cells. The objective is to develop new therapies, particularly against tuberculosis: “We’re also continuing to test therapeutic molecules and antibiotic combinations. Several articles are currently being prepared and preclinical trials are underway”, she enthuses.

Find out more about Priscille Brodin and her research

Priscille Brodin leads the Chemical Genomics of Intracellular Mycobacteria team at the Lille Center for Infection and Immunity (Inserm/CNRS/Lille 1 University/Institut Pasteur de Lille unit 1019).