Edith Heard: “We will die of bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics in a decade” | United States
Edith Heard, 56, was born and raised in London, but when she started school at the age of five, she couldn’t speak “a word of English” after hearing Greek at the home – the mother tongue of his mother. She arrived at Cambridge University at the age of 18, marveling at the enormity of the cosmos and determined to become an astronomer. Just one remedial biology book – a subject she had never studied – would change her path in life. “I discovered everything for the first time. I have seen amazing images of cells. It was my eureka moment and I realized that I didn’t want to study physics, but biology. I made the decision in literally 30 seconds.
Heard has more than made up for lost time. Today she is the Managing Director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), which has 1,800 workers and sites in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The lab opened a new facility in Barcelona in 2017, focused on organ development and function.
Heard’s specialty is epigenetics, the study of how your lifestyle and environment can change the way your genes are expressed. If DNA is a sequence of letters containing instructions for the functioning of a living being, epigenetic changes alter these messages and can lead to diseases, such as cancer. Heard’s goal is to learn how to manage these genes triggered with drugs, to reverse the course of disease. The geneticist, who has just obtained French nationality after having lived half of her life in Paris, recently went to Madrid to meet the Minister of Sciences Pedro Duque, and to study future collaborations.
Question. You said your intention is for EMBL to cause a “wow! Among citizens, in the same way that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) does with discoveries such as the Higgs boson.
Reply. This is what I want. And I think this is already happening in some cases. EMBL participated in the Tara Oceans project, an expedition to discover biodiversity in the ocean. It caused a “wow”. Two years ago, they published the discovery of 200,000 new viruses in the ocean at the North Pole. Why is the North Pole a hotbed of viral diversity? I do not know. It’s a “wow” for me!
Q. You have been leading EMBL since 2019. Before the coronavirus pandemic, you said you wanted to reflect with your best scientists to identify the big questions to be answered. What are they?
A. I organized the brainstorming sessions as soon as I arrived. It’s very ironic, because I did a presentation with a slide on emerging pandemics. I said they often occur in areas where human action destroys ecosystems.
Q. Just before the pandemic?
A. Two years ago, before the pandemic. We already knew there was a risk because we knew about other viruses like SARS. We needed molecular tools to understand what was going on. We knew these issues were very urgent. And then the pandemic arrived. I promise I’m not Cassandra [a figure from Greek mythology with the gift of prophecy]! These are the kind of big questions we want to understand: how pandemics emerge. Another question, for example, is why antibiotic resistance is increasing so rapidly. It’s not just in hospitals; you can see the antibiotic resistance of bacteria in the ocean. We want to understand why this is happening.
Q. What can be the reason?
A. We don’t know, that’s the big question. If we could figure out what is going on, we could prevent it. Many companies have stopped developing antibiotics, so there are only a few drugs left. It will be the next big killer. In 10 to 20 years, we will die of bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics, which we can no longer treat. Over the past 100 years, we have doubled our life expectancy, thanks to things like antibiotics and vaccines. If we do nothing, 20 years from now the antibiotics that exist today will not be able to treat the infections that we have. It will be the next pandemic. EMBL’s new program covers these issues.
Q. In your lab profile photo, we see a tricolor cat: white, black and orange. What does this have to do with your specialty?
A. For centuries people in the countryside have known that tricolor cats are generally female. The reason is that they have two X chromosomes, because they are female, and there is a gene on the X chromosome that can produce a black or orange color. If you have the black version of the gene on one X chromosome and the orange version on the other X chromosome, the coat color will depend on the chromosome expressed. On the other chromosomes, the two copies [inherited from mother and father] are expressed, but this does not happen with both X chromosomes in women: one is off and the other is active. Sometimes it’s your mother’s X chromosome and sometimes it’s your father’s X chromosome, so each cell expresses a different X chromosome during embryonic development. Sometimes it’s orange and sometimes it’s black. You have a mosaic, that’s what we see in women. You will never see it in men because they only have one X chromosome, which is either orange or black. White is something else, it is due to the lack of melanocytes.
Q. When you won the L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science last year, you said there was hope that epigenetic drugs could one day treat certain cancers and other diseases. What is an epigenetic drug and when will it be available?
A. Genes are made of DNA. With cancer, if you have a mutation that affects your DNA, that’s it, you can’t undo it. But now we know that some changes are not at the DNA level, but at the epigenetic level: chemical changes in DNA. We now know that in cancer there are big epigenetic changes, not just genetic. And these epigenetic changes are very interesting, because you can undo them. An epigenetic drug is a drug that modifies these epigenetic changes. Some already exist, such as decitabine, which is used for acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. A gene can cause cancer by being silenced or overactivated. Sometimes it is on when it should be off, or vice versa. This switch can be epigenetic and you can try to reverse it with an epigenetic drug. The problem is that in the area of solid tumors, like lung cancer, less progress has been made. Epigenetic drugs are already in use, but a few years ago I thought everything would go much faster.
Q. You have often said that science is sexist, but you also said in an interview that you are not a feminist. What do you mean?
A. A feminist cardholder goes to protests and I never have. However, when I look back on my life, I have always stood up for women. When I was in college and we started physics classes, I was one of only two women in the class. I realized that science is sexist. It’s not even a review; it’s a reality. This is how society works and it is changing. But physics, for example, is dominated by men. Biology, less. I am not a distinguished feminist, but I care about human rights, equality and diversity. And the position of women in science is something that matters to me deeply. This is one of the reasons I took this job. I thought that agreeing to become the first woman to lead EMBL was important in showing other women that it is possible. I don’t mean to be a model, but just to be an example that it is possible. I am not a distinguished feminist, but I advocate for equal rights.
Q. This is what the word “feminism” means in Spanish. French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi also said, in an interview with EL PAÍS in 2017, that she was not a feminist. Perhaps in France the concept of feminism is more political.
A. There may be something cultural, yes. I think what bothers me a bit is that I have a daughter and a son and I see that women can be very successful and at the same time life can be difficult for boys. I’m a feminist, but I also want boys to be successful. Most of the men I know are also feminists.
Q. With your colleagues, you founded the National Program for Emergency Assistance and Reception of Scientists in Exile, a French organization which helps researchers in countries in crisis or at war.
A. Yes, it was started a few years ago when many people were displaced by the war in Syria. We are talking about people like me, but who overnight have to pack their bags, lose decades of scientific work because their institutions have been bombed, and leave with their families without knowing where they will end up. My daughter studied international relations and was learning Arabic. On weekends she had [language] exchanges with refugees who have come to France and eager to learn French. The students were teaching French to the refugees and they needed more people, so I signed up. I have met some of these young people, and people my age. It really made me realize that these people had lost everything and needed help.
Q. What did you do?
A. With my colleagues from the Collège de France [an institution where Heard was a professor] we approached the French government and they welcomed the idea. Within months, we had funding and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Interior were ready to launch the program. At first, the researchers did not come only from Syria, but also from other countries, such as Turkey and Libya. In some cases, scientists had only signed a petition and were then told to leave the country. We received applications from these people and we had to assess them not only on the basis of their science, but also on the seriousness of the emergency. You read their CVs and realized that their whole life was about to be destroyed. They are people with incredible stories. A woman was a university dean in a North African country, but the new president was a religious extremist and decided that women should not be in these positions, so she spoke out against the situation and had to flee from day to day. next day. It’s very exciting to be a part of that. This makes you aware of the importance and the fragility of democracy and freedom: you can lose everything overnight.