When cells, like wine, age well

Professor Francis Rodier of Université de Montréal's Faculty of Medicine and the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal Research Centre.

Professor Francis Rodier of Université de Montréal's Faculty of Medicine and the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal Research Centre.

Credit: Bonesso-Dumas.

In 5 seconds

Presenting Francis Rodier, Professor at the Faculty of Medicine's Department of Radiology, Radio-oncology and Nuclear Medicine.

His office radiates with light. Sunny, warm, and calm. Much like the man who greets us: Francis Rodier, Assistant Professor in the Department of Radiology, Radiation Oncology, and Nuclear Medicine at Université de Montréal. As a researcher in molecular biology associated with the CHUM Research Centre's (CRCHUM) cancer axis and the Montreal Cancer Institute (ICM), he dreamed of being a winemaker in California... all while conducting experiments in cellular aging. Indeed, for the past ten years, the scientist has been interested in DNA repair and cell fate related to aging. Science flows in his veins. “As a child, I read all the science magazines: Les Débrouillards, Popular Science, Québec Science, Scientific American, you name it. I always liked studying, and my interest in biology crystallized at the end of CÉGEP,” said Rodier, smiling.

After completing his BSc in Biology at Université de Montréal, he specialized in molecular biology applied to human health (MSc, 1998; PhD, 2005 [UdeM]). A vintage career.

Today, among other things, my team and I are working to identify molecules unique to senescent cells, the cellular equivalent of aging. Once they are determined, we can theoretically target these molecules and eliminate the senescent cells, or at least manipulate them, without affecting healthy tissue. Such targeting can apply not only to natural aging, but also to aging associated with cancer treatments. The concept is called “synthetic lethality.”

Between 1998 and 2003, the human genome was fully sequenced. “A technical feat that opened the way for a new scientific era. Early in my university studies, I focused on cancer progression and a single complex cellular phenomenon: senescence and cell aging,” he said. A choice that allowed him to travel and rub shoulders with leading experts in the field. His postdoctoral career first led him to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley, and then to the Buck Institute for Age Research north of San Francisco.

In 2009, Montreal welcomed him back thanks to the Montreal Cancer Institute's “brain drain repatriation” program. He was recruited by the CRCHUM and the Montreal Cancer Institute for his expertise. “A nice coincidence,” he said. Rather a perfect match between the needs of the CRCHUM's Department of Radiation Oncology and his specialization, DNA damage response signalling (or DDR – details on the CRCHUM website).

1, 2, 3... Target

In 2011, a group of scientists confirmed that senescent cells contribute to aging and associated pathologies in mammals. In fact, not only do these cells no longer proliferate, but they can also cause the undamaged cells surrounding them to malfunction.

“A major problem if this cellular aging is prematurely induced by non-discriminatory cancer treatment. Indeed, senescence is simultaneously induced in the cancer tissues (positive effect) and normal tissues (negative effect) in patients with prostate or ovarian cancer, for example," explained Rodier.

His ultimate goal: “the ability to manipulate, in vivo, senescent cells in humans.” A challenge that the “researcher-winemaker” intends to take up like a wine grower. Pragmatically. Indeed, it seems that his own wines made from Zinfandel, Cabernet-Sauvignon, and Marquette are well worth investigating...