Erwan Bézard: A life entirely dedicated to patients

This neurobiologist and Parkinson’s disease specialist has spent the last twenty years carrying out research that has concrete benefits for patients and working tirelessly in synergy with his scientist and physician colleagues. It is this same philosophy that drives Erwan Bézard’s entire team at the Institut des maladies neurodégénératives in Bordeaux.

Erwan Bézard © Inserm/Guénet, François

On 8 June, Erwan Bézard, Director of the Institut des maladies neurodégénératives (IMN - Institute of neurodegenerative diseases) in Bordeaux, was awarded the Scientific Grand Prize by the Fondation Simone et Cino Del Duca for his work in the field of Parkinson’s disease. "It would be more accurate to say that I share this prize with Ronald Melki from the Institut des neurosciences Paris-Saclay (Paris-Saclay Institute of neurosciences), who worked on the cell-related aspects, while I concentrated on the animal and human components", he highlights. This detail sums up his whole scientific approach, ranging from the cell to the patient, but also reflects the ethos of the man himself, constantly attentive to his team, as demonstrated by his career to date.

A native of Brittany, he moved to Bordeaux just after completing his two-year university diploma in biology, because “my future wife was studying there and it was the only university at the time to offer a degree in neurosciences”, he recounts. He quickly felt at home in the area – perhaps aided by the fact that he joined a rugby team, first in Bordeaux, then in Salies-de-Béarn. It was a natural next step for him to join the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) in 1995, working within Bernard Bioulac’s neurophysiology lab, supervised by Christian Gross for his Ph.D. thesis in Parkinson’s disease. "In 1993, this team, which also included our research scientist colleague Abdelhamid Benazzouz, developed deep brain stimulation surgery in this disease. It was extremely exciting to be part of this applied research”, he recalls. “And I fully embraced the work ethic so dear to Christian Gross." In terms of research focus, he was interested in the compensatory phenomena whereby symptoms only appear once there are significant brain lesions. After Bordeaux, he moved to the UK in 1999 to work in Alan Crossman’s lab at the University of Manchester.

It was during this period that he came to the conclusion that to successfully carry out pre-clinical studies in Parkinson’s disease, "you need to have access to a statistically valid number of primates". In the absence of any suitable structure in Europe, he set off for China to find a breeding facility. The memory still brings a smile to his face.

I found myself completely alone with my lab equipment on a farm somewhere deep in the middle of China, without a word of Chinese to my name and faced with people who spoke absolutely no English or French”, he recounts. “The only way to communicate was by gestures and demonstration. But it worked.

The proof is that Erwan Bézard now travels to the facility, which has become an extension of the Bordeaux lab, several times a year to carry out studies on primates. However, he laughingly admits that, “when it comes to my Chinese language skills, I still only have a minimum survival kit".

So his stint in England was very beneficial but, with his wife working in Bordeaux, the neurobiologist decided to return to his old lab, where his research took a new direction. Still keen to follow the example of “his models Christian Gross, Alan Crossman and Mohamed Jaber from Poitiers” and to ensure his research would benefit patients, he felt that “studying compensatory phenomena does not result in enough applications”. He therefore refocused his research on dyskinesia, a side effect of treatments. One of the treatments for Parkinson’s disease - levodopa - compensates for the gradual disappearance of dopamine, a chemical messenger that ensures communication between neurons. For a few years, the effect is beneficial, but after this “honeymoon period” as the neurobiologist describes it, the patient develops involuntary abnormal movements, known as dyskinesia.

“It was at this point that I met Pierre Sokoloff [editor’s note: then a neurobiologist at the Centre Paul Broca in Paris.] with whom I conducted the first study on this subject starting in 2001. At the time, I was still pretty naive and I was sure we would wrap things up very quickly”, he recognizes. I now know that it takes a very long time to develop a treatment…" But nothing is impossible because one treatment has been the subject of a positive phase 2 clinical trial in 50 patients and is currently entering phase 3 trials. It appears to modulate the receptor of a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which over-reacts to dopamine in patients, leading to dyskinesia. If the benefits are confirmed, Erwan Bézard will have attained his goal of providing relief for patients, but that is not his only achievement.

Well before this, back in 2010, under the patronage of Bernard Bioulac, he was asked to create, and then manage, the IMN in Bordeaux, the objective being to develop an integrated approach. "The site brings together researchers and physicians at a research and treatment facility where the focus of our work ranges from the cell to the patient. The fact that I lead the facility despite not being a physician is somewhat unusual for a structure of this type. But that would not have been possible without the commitment of François Tison, neurologist and assistant director responsible for clinical research”, he stresses. “Finally, I’m very proud that we also have a dedicated room for the use of patient associations. And thanks to the Maison du Cerveau room, researchers, physicians and patients help the general public learn more about brain diseases."

There is no doubt that, twenty years after beginning his career, Erwan Bézard remains true to the philosophy of Christian Cross and the IMN. He is also a regular speaker at events in the USA; China and throughout Europe. On a more personal level, his values have not changed either: his watchwords continue to be respect and consensus. "Among my many valued colleagues, I would like to single out Benjamin Dehay, a young researcher who is set to take up my scientific baton in the future", he says. An unexpected remark from somebody who is just 46 years old, perhaps, but "it’s natural to look ahead because I’m determined to ensure a gentle transition, as Bernard Bioulac did with me." However, he does not intend to retire just yet and his diary is still very full. To be able to keep up this busy pace, he is careful to take time out to relax, "mostly so I don’t become unbearable at work”, he laughs. “Before, I played rugby – a great way of letting off steam – but in deference to age, I’ve now gone back to competitive horse riding, something I’ve enjoyed since I was a boy." Another way of getting over obstacles, but this time with his family alongside.

Find out more about Erwan Bézard

Erwan Bézard is Director of the Institut des maladies neurodégénératives (IMN, Inserm unit 5293/CNRS) in Bordeaux.

Key dates

  • 1998 Doctor of neurosciences – University of Bordeaux-II
  • 1999-2001 Post-doc at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom)
  • 2007 Head of the Physiopathology of parkinsonism team at the IMN
  • 2010 Director of the Institut des maladies neurodégénératives (IMN - Institute of neurodegenerative diseases) in Bordeaux
  • 2011-2014 Inserm scientific excellence award

See also