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Jamal Tazi, bearing the genes of research

He is deeply transforming the treatment of AIDS

 

 

The French-Moroccan researcher is the vice-director of the Biology and Health department of the University of Montpellier. He identified a molecule about to change the future of patients with AIDS. Interview with Jamal Tazi, a researcher whose career was spread with critical encounters.

 

Discovering research in Montpellier

Jamal Tazi believes he had "nice encounters" throughout his professional life. At least three. Without a doubt, the French-Moroccan researcher in molecular genetics who won the CNRS award for innovation in 2017 prompted such meetings himself with his hearty and contagious bursts of laughter. Without a doubt, such statement comes from his modesty, a quality at least equal to his scientific genius.

The first encounter dates back to his student years. Born in Rabat in 1981, he arrived as a young man in Montpellier to study in a Masters' course of molecular biology. Professor Philippe Jeanteur noticed him, supervised his thesis, helped him improve his skills in Vienna, and then offered him to join the CNRS and the Institute of Molecular Genetics he had just created. At the time, the subject was still a pioneer in its field.

 

Years of molecular research

The second encounter occurred years later, in 2007. Since the early 2000, Jamal Tazi was working at the Curie Institute on molecules capable of preventing mechanisms causing genetic diseases. The research work was first trials and errors, but then opened incredible possibilities. One of such possibilities occurred when his team managed to identify a molecule capable of blocking the replication of the AIDS virus.

The problem was: Tazi's laboratory did not have the financial resources to launch the clinical trials. Tazi was contacted by the biochemistry department of Montreal, and the researcher was tempted to go, because the financial resources were not in the least comparable to those of the French department. But he loved living in Montpellier. And most of all, he had met Bernard Pau, another CNRS researcher in Montpellier who put at his disposal his institutional and financial network. This was the final push leading to the third encounter.

 

A critical discovery for AIDS patients

Philippe Pouletty, cofounder and general director of Truffle Capital, one of the European leaders of risk capital, immediately believed in Tazi's project and the extraordinary potential of the molecule discovered. With the CNRS, the University of Montpellier and the Languedoc-Roussillon region, he supported the creation of his biotechnology company, a cooperative laboratory joining public and private funds. The year was 2008, and the clinical trials phase could begin. The trials led to a critical new discovery: Jamal Tazi and his team realised the molecule could durably lower the viral load of the AIDS virus. This is a revolution, because it could lead to the end of life-long treatments! At this stage, the lab changed to play in a bigger league. As a result of the merger of three companies, the Abivax group was created in 2014. Its public listing led to the "best fundraising of all biotech companies": 52 million Euros.

 

The molecule is now in phase II of clinical trials before its market launch. With Abivax group, Jamal Tazi and his team are working on its use to treat inflammatory disorders such as Crohn's disease. A new challenge for the researcher. Now supported by the Public Bank of Investment (BPI) and the Occitanie region, he is passionate about the future: "France must continue to grant the financial means for fundamental research! Its role is critical: today, no laboratory can work without it to develop its products. You need to make sure the level stays high in France". Tazi's career is indeed the best example.

 

Pictures © Pierre Le Tulzo – Animal pensant