Jessica Zucman-Rossi: A researcher with a physician’s spirit

Jessica Zucman-Rossi is primarily a researcher, but she has kept the spirit of a physician. Her goal is to ensure patients benefit from her discoveries in the field of liver cancer genomics. A scientific journey that is far from over.

Jessica Zucman-Rossi
Jessica Zucman-Rossi © Inserm/Guénet, François

Jessica Zucman-Rossi, a liver tumor genomics specialist, has just been awarded the Coups d’élan prize for French research by the Fondation Bettencourt Schueller. Armed with this award, designed to improve research infrastructures and working conditions for life science researchers, her team is set to move to the Centre de recherche des Cordeliers (Les Cordeliers research center) in Paris, where it will be able to continue studying the genes involved in solid tumors. The field captured the researcher’s imagination at a very young age. "Back in the 1980s, when I was in my last year at high school, I attended a lecture given in the Palais de la Découverte in Paris by Bernard Dutrillaux, who at the time was working on the genetic evolution of species at the Institut Curie”, she recalls. “I found the subject absolutely fascinating. At the end of the lecture, I came out saying: ‘that’s it, that’s what I want to do - genetics’, but I didn’t know at the time whether it would be via medicine or research.” A few months later, she chose to study medicine, going on to specialize in oncology. But she never lost her interest in genetics. “At the start of my medical internship in 1987, I spent six months in the lab run by Bernard Dutrillaux, my first mentor, as part of the team led by Gilles Thomas, from the CNRS’s Laboratory of tumor genetics, who was to become my second mentor” , she recounts. From that point on, she was in no doubt at all that she wanted to follow a dual training path.

Genomics is a research field devoid of preconceptions in which it’s possible to make unexpected discoveries.

In light of this, she began a DEA (specialized post-graduate research degree) in the fundamentals of oncogenesis within this same team, working with Olivier Delattre, her “third mentor". Her research topic was the identification and characterization of genes modified by chromosome translocation – i.e. by swapping genetic material between two chromosomes – causing Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, as well as various solid tumors. Then, like many students, she planned to finish her Ph.D. thesis in the USA. But in 1992, her research into Ewing’s sarcoma resulted in some very interesting discoveries: "It was the first time that the modified genes involved in a solid tumor in humans had ever been identified”, she explains, adding, with a touch of regret, “there was no way I could leave to go abroad now - I had a job to finish."

So for the next 5 years, she worked tirelessly to complete both her medical internship and her Ph.D. thesis. "They allowed me to divide my time between the two, spending roughly one year in the hospital followed by six months in the lab”, she enthuses. “It really was a special time, when I wasn’t forced to choose!" It was during this period, in 1994, that she was awarded her two doctorates. However, she could not pursue both paths and ultimately opted to concentrate on research, joining Inserm. She continued her genomics research there, but switched to the liver, an organ that has been her focus ever since.

Liver cancer is one of the most aggressive types of cancer. Although it develops in cirrhosis-sufferers in the great majority of cases, it also occurs in patients with healthy livers in around 5% of cases. Jessica Zucman-Rossi’s team is therefore trying to identify the environmental and genetic origins of tumor development. From the start of the 2000s, she began identifying genetic mutations causing a predisposition to the development of hepatic tumors. Painstaking work, further complicated by the fact that “when we began, it was still the stone age as far as genetics were concerned. It took several weeks to sequence a single gene!” the researcher recalls laughing. “Now our field has been completely revolutionized, since the advent of new high-output sequencing methods in 2009. And today, thanks to ultra-high-output techniques, we can sequence the entire genome in just a few days."

This technological progress has made it possible to identify genetic markers, which should lead to better diagnosis, more accurate prognosis of the course of a disease, tailored treatments and the development of new targeted therapies. In sum, "it has contributed to precision medicine”, continues this researcher who still thinks like a doctor. “For example, we can determine how aggressive a cancer is and adapt our choice of treatment accordingly. Furthermore, we have drawn up a molecular classification system to differentiate between malignant and benign tumors in various organs.” In fact, as she is at pains to specify, "although my favorite field is the liver, my team also studies cancers of the kidney and mesothelium." And in January 2019, the 35 researchers, and their projects, will move to the Centre de recherche des Cordeliers where they will have a brand new 320-m2 lab funded by the Fondation Bettencourt Schueller award. As for Jessica Zucman-Rossi, she is set to take over the scientific management of the Centre. Her ambition is to encourage new research topics to open up new therapeutic avenues.

This new role will offer a new challenge to someone whose timetable is already pretty full. "Today, I regularly travel outside France for conferences, lectures and collaborative projects. It’s like a delayed post-doc” [editor’s note: at the age of 52], she explains, referring to her missed date with the USA. “In addition, in 2015, I chaired Inserm’s specialized scientific committee on Genetics; Epigenetics and oncology, primarily tasked with assisting researchers in difficulty and helping young researchers launch their project. This kind of role is very important to me, which is why I mentor others within the lab, as others did for me, since it is thanks to these mentors that someone becomes a research scientist."

With such a busy schedule, one might wonder if she has any life outside the lab? "Of course! I enjoy boats, skiing, reading and spending time with my family, which is very important to me. I have great kids: Simon, who is 19, loves sailing, while Clara, who is 20, is in her second year of medicine”, she says proudly. “And I’m also lucky enough to have a husband who has always supported me!” Unfailing support thanks to which she plans to continue her genomics journey "for a good ten years to come, at least".

Find out more about Jessica Zucman-Rossi

Jessica Zucman-Rossi leads the Functional Genomics of Solid Tumors (Inserm unit 1162/Université Paris-13/Université Paris-Descartes – Université Paris-Diderot).

Key dates

  • 1992 Cloning of chromosome translocation in Ewing’s tumors
  • 1994 Doctor of medicine and oncogenesis
  • 1996 Inserm research fellow
  • 2004 Inserm research director, Since
  • 2007 Director of Inserm unit 674 then unit 1162
  • Since 2009 University Professor and Hospital Practitioner in oncology, AP-HP (Paris public hospital system) HEGP
  • 2012 Inserm research prize