“The interesting thing about studying viruses,” said Dr. Anne Gatignol, “is that it’s about us. Because we, and animals, are the host.”
Given how Gatignol talks about virology—that is, with the passion of a scientist who has found her true calling—it’s perhaps surprising to learn that she didn’t go directly into the field. Her first training, in her native France, was as a pharmacist. She worked in that field for a few years before continuing her studies, focusing first on molecular biology before attaining her PhD in microbiology from Université de Toulouse in 1988.
“During that time I was exposed to the subjects of bacteriology, cell biology and viruses,” she recalled. “When it was time to do my postdoc I wanted to go to the States, because at that time HIV had started, and I saw that 80 percent of the publications were from the States. We didn’t have the internet at that time,” she added dryly.
Gatignol’s American postdoc in HIV entailed an increasing interest in the molecular aspects of virus-cell interaction, after which she went back to France to take a research position. “I started to develop my program on HIV at that time,” she said. “When I moved to Canada for family reasons, I brought all that experience with me.”
For all the twists and turns her professional path has taken, the route to where Gatignol is today—Professor of Molecular Biology/Virology in the departments of Medicine and Microbiology and Immunology at McGill; Senior Investigator and Head of “Virus-Cell Interactions” Laboratory in the HIV/AIDS Research Axis of Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital—has been an organic one.
“What I am doing now is really the continuation of all the previous studies, because you start in one field, in my case HIV, and you get expertise to understand other fields. I also started to teach, and teaching is interesting in the sense that you don’t teach just on what your research is about. It’s wider. I started teaching viral pathogenesis and became very interested in emerging viruses. Ten years ago I set up a three-hour lecture on that subject, which I found interesting to study because this is a real threat, and they are very diverse. I teach it from a global perspective, because it’s not just about viruses, it’s about how they emerge and how they can be disseminated.”
Working at the cutting edge of emerging virus research meant Gatignol was well placed at the advent of COVID-19.
“Yes, I saw it coming at the beginning of January,” she said. “I remember that the first time a journalist asked me for an interview was on the 21st. At that time I saw there was something, but we just didn’t know what would be the amplitude and the severity of it. People in China, maybe they knew a little bit more, but from here we were thinking at first that it could stop, like SARS CoV-1 did in 2003. We saw quickly though that it was less severe but that the dissemination was much faster. So the risk was here.”
Gatignol is quite clear on the driving force behind her current research: it’s treatment.
“I’m interested in understanding how the viruses replicate,” she said. “This is fundamental research, but in the end, it’s all oriented towards treatment. About COVID-19, there are two ways to think about it. Either we treat very early and target the virus, or we treat the disease later, to block the hyper-inflammation and limit the damage. In my lab we are targeting the virus.”
Regarding current research funding and support, Gatignol expressed general satisfaction, albeit with concerns about continuity.
“The important thing is to have research funding be constant, because you never know what the next problem is going to be. Since March we have seen the government supporting many companies because they don’t want them to lose the expertise of their workers. It is the same for us, if we have an interruption in the funding of our research, then we lose the expertise: students and experienced personnel leave because we can’t retain them. Training new people is time consuming. It’s important to have a minimum amount of funding every year. Right now I do have the necessary infrastructure and funding (at McGill and the Lady Davis Institute). I have grants for HIV and COVID-19. But some people have lost their grants. We shouldn’t forget other fields, like other infections, cancer, neurology, aging, cardiovascular diseases and many others as well as fundamental research.”
Talking a few hours after Germany-based Pfizer’s announcement of an RNA vaccine (and several days before US biotech firm Moderna announced their vaccine), Gatignol, who has been studying RNA for more than thirty years, stressed the need for patience. “It’s interesting that the Pfizer vaccine works, that it protects people, but I think we have to be even more careful about the possible side effects because it is a new type of vaccine. I have a tendency to be always very careful, but this is encouraging, for sure.”
Asked what she would say if she could impart just one thing about viruses, Gatignol paused briefly before replying.
“They are very little but they can disturb us a lot. It’s important to study them, and also to know that they will always emerge.”
That “just one thing" then expanded, as Gatignol voiced a few additional concerns from her aforementioned global viewpoint
“I have to say that we as humans have created the conditions for new viruses to emerge. We have a world population that is huge and increasing; to feed this population we increase deforestation. When we do that we increase the contact between humans and wild animals, and that increases the chances of transmitting a virus. With increased travel—though not this year, of course—we see faster dissemination. So we should work on many aspects. Stabilizing the population would be one. Taking care of our environment, decreasing global warming and thus decreasing transmission by mosquitoes. Decreasing poverty so that everyone can have access to at least a decent life, education, the minimum protection, treatments and vaccines. All these aspects are linked.”