The road to health

It’s just a short skip and a jump from hard sciences to public health, and it’s one that Stephane Hazebrouck made wholeheartedly. With a background in engineering and microbiology, he has followed the research path to INRA’s Food Allergy Laboratory. It’s a route that has enabled him to tackle some of society’s biggest health challenges.

Stéphane Hazebrouck, researcher at INRA's Food Allergy Laboratory, on the INRA stand at the 2017 International Agricultural Show. © Bertrand NICOLAS - INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand
By Julie Cheriguene, translated by Teri Jones-Villeneuve
Updated on 07/07/2017
Published on 06/19/2017

Take time to explore research issues

For Stéphane Hazebrouck, all options were on the table. He started with a scientific speciality. During his preparatory class in maths and physics, he got a taste of organic chemistry. In 1991, he enrolled in engineering school at the Institut national des sciences appliquées (INSA Toulouse), a decision which would shape his future career. His optional focus in fundamental microbiology brought him to the research laboratory through internships, which piqued his interest in getting a PhD. “I wanted to fully understand the researcher’s approach.”

Finding inspiration

Stéphane completed his thesis work at the Cochin Institute of Molecular Genetics (ICGM). “I worked on developing a bacterial screening tool to select for HIV protease substrates and inhibitors (1).” Inhibiting viral protease activity, which allows proteolytic cleavage of the viral polyprotein precursors, allows scientists to block the production of viral particles that can infect new cells.  “We developed a strain of E. coli bacteria, whose growth was conditioned to the AIDS virus protease activity (1).”
After completing his PhD, he went to Israel for postdoctoral work on the resistance processes of orange trees under water stress, his first contact with agricultural research. “In a drought situation, certain antioxidant plant proteins are overexpressed. Our project attempted to modify one of them by incorporating a selenocysteine and expressing it for the first time in E. coli. The antioxidant properties of this protein had numerous possible applications, such as in cosmetic creams.” It was a life-changing trip. “The scientific methods are similar because the scientists all publish in the same journals, but what was most rewarding was learning to adapt to different cultures in the Middle East."
Stéphane then did a second postdoctoral fellowship at a start-up where he studied genetic recombination. These experiences led him to reconsider his future. “Public, private – I was open to everything. But I felt that I needed to take my time to explore research issues. To have that kind of freedom, you have to do public research.”

Public awareness

While enrolled in a technical innovation management programme in the fields of agriculture and bioindustries, Stéphane also applied for a position as a research scientist at INRA’s Food Allergy Laboratory, for which he was accepted in 2003. “I’m extremely happy to be able to work with patients and clinicians – I wish I had been able to do more of that during my PhD.”

Food allergies, a public health challenge

He is involved in a range of research projects, all with a consistent goal: to better understand food allergies, which today are recognised as an illness and pose a very real public health challenge.
He is especially interested in the relationship between the intestinal microbiota and the immune system. “The importance of gut bacterial colonisation during the first weeks of life is crucial. The immune system is learning to identify what is dangerous and what is harmless, such as commensal (normal) microflora or food proteins.” Studies have demonstrated that mice raised in a sterile environment – and therefore without intestinal microbiota – show stronger allergic responses. Stéphane’s research is also focused on the study of certain food allergens (2). “We wondered why some patients can be allergic to goat’s milk but tolerate cow’s milk, even though 90% of the proteins are the same. We were able to observe this phenomenon in mice by producing antibodies that could specifically detect goat’s milk. Today, these antibodies are used in kits to detect the contamination of cow’s milk by goat’s milk.”

The research outlook is broad, with opportunities ranging from metabolomics and metagenomics approaches to the study of new allergy pathologies or the impact of environmental factors on food allergies. “We’re also looking at allergen risk assessment by introducing new proteins – initially used in animal feed – into human food, such as sunflower seeds or rapeseed.” Stéphane knows that this is a promising field of research, and finding funding is key to ensuring his laboratory’s long-term efforts. The lab also continually trains students and fields an ever-increasing number of requests from a growing audience. “It really keeps us on our toes. It’s nice to feel like we’re doing something that matters!” says Stéphane, who knows that his job depends on getting the results of his research out to the public.  

(1) The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the retrovirus responsible for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in people.

(2) More specifically, he works on the production of recombinant allergens in E. coli to develop diagnostic tests and to produce antibodies that are specific to cow’s milk and goat’s milk proteins.

Mini-CV

  • 45 years old, married with two children
  • 1994: Degree in Biochemical and Food Engineering, Microbial Genetics, Institut national des sciences appliquées (INSA Toulouse)
  • 1998: Master’s in Microbiology and Biotechnology from the Institut national des sciences appliquées (INSA Toulouse) and Université Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier
  • PhD in Microbiology, Université Paris VII – Denis Diderot
  • 2003: Master’s in Technology Innovation Management in agriculture and bioindustries (Masternova), Institut national agronomique de Paris Grignon (INA-PG) and Reims Management School
  • Since 2003: Research scientist at research scientist at INRA’s Food Allergy Laboratory, at the CEA Saclay
  • 2016: Authorisation to conduct research, Université Paris Decartes
  • Hobby: Scuba diving

taking things further

control of milk. © INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian
control of milk © INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian
The detection of unexpected contaminations of food products by goat’s milk. Read the article