Year of selection 2017
Institution INSERM / ESPCI Paris
Throughout history, proximity between physics and medicine has led to major discoveries and profound societal revolutions. Among the numerous examples, is the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1905, which paved the way for the development of radiotherapy. The AXA Chair on Physics for Medicine and Biology, created at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), aims to improve fundamental knowledge in medicine and biology using groundbreaking technologies invented by physicists. Because the path from these discoveries to the benefit of patients is long and complex, the other major objective of the program is to foster their translation to research labs and clinics.
Incidentally, the first holder of the chair, physicist Mickaël Tanter, is conducting his research in the same engineering school where Marie Curie and her husband began their work on radioactivity : the ESPCI (Superior school of Physical Physics and Chemistry of Paris). More precisely, his team is based in the Paul Langevin Institute, named after yet another ESPCI physicist who contributed to a major advance in medicine: ultrasound. Indeed, professor Tanter is leading worldwide research on this medical imaging technology for health. His objectives are to develop disruptive imaging concepts, new therapeutic approaches and smart sensors for healthcare, focusing on three major areas of medicine: cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neuroscience.
Breaking down the barriers of ultrasound: an unprecedented look at the human bod
«Conventional Ultrasound (also called sonography), enables us to see inside the body, the same way we see the world through our eyes, with approximately the same resolution and frame rate. That’s why we call it the television of the human body, he explains. In the last twenty years I developed with my colleagues technologies such as ultrafast Ultrasound, neurofunctional ultrasound and ultrasound microscopy that drastically pushes back the spatio-temporal frontiers of ultrasound. Now we can see 10 000 images per second at micrometric resolution, and detect subtle changes in tiny vessels». Seeing inside the body at such microscopic scale has major implications for biomedical research. «To give you an example, this technology enables us to see very small blood vessels, which were invisible before, the researcher explains. A disease, before it reaches the bigger blood vessels, starts in these capillaries. If we can see changes we were not able to see before, we can understand fundamentals of the human body, and we can also establish earlier diagnosis of major diseases. It also enable us to image brain neuronal activity with portable ultrasound devices, a revolution for neuroscience». The biomedical ultrasound technologies developed by prof. Tanter’s team also have therapeutic applications: «Ultrasound can be used for non-invasive surgical purposes as well. For instance, we’ve developed a technique that can restore the elasticity of cardiac valves in elderly people, which is a far less risky intervention than surgery».
The framework of the AXA-INSERM Chair will not only facilitate the research aspects of the program, it will also ensure the outputs find their way to the medical field. Diffusion will be ensured by giving access to the technologies to collaborators of other areas, providing user trainings, answering users’ needs and feedbacks, and training students and young researchers to work at the interface between fundamental physics, applied physics and translational research.