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Genetic epidemiologist named visiting professor

Laurent Abel, a geneticist interested in infectious diseases, has been appointed a visiting professor and member ofJean-Laurent Casanova’s Laboratory of Human Genetics of Infectious Disease. Though he will continue to be based in France — his existing laboratory is at the Necker School of Medicine and University Paris Descartes — he will spend several weeks each year at Rockefeller University.

Dr. Abel, who has an M.D. from the Paris West Medical School and University Paris Descartes, and a Ph.D. from University Paris South, has spent the last 12 years working in partnership with Dr. Casanova in Paris. Together, the two scientists have explored the genetics of human predisposition to infectious diseases. Their research has helped scientists understand why some people get sick during the course of infection while others exposed to the same pathogen do not get sick.

Laurent Abel

Though their goals are similar, Dr. Abel and Dr. Casanova use different approaches. Dr. Casanova uses classical Mendelian genetic techniques to link single, rare mutations to specific severe infections, while Dr. Abel is focused on using genetic data from populations to search for polymorphisms associated with increased susceptibility to common infections.

“Merging our two research programs has allowed us to make use of a wide variety of genetic techniques and to study the full spectrum of infectious diseases, and has permitted us to get a broader picture of the ways in which genes are linked to infections,” says Dr. Abel. “A good example is tuberculosis. By working collaboratively, we know that there are both single genes that have a strong effect on susceptibility and polymorphisms with weaker effects. It’s a major advantage to investigate all these aspects together.”

Laurent is a physician by training, but has spent his career in the laboratory, first in a unit of France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and Pitié-Salpêtrière Medical School, University of Paris Pierre and Marie Curie; and later in an INSERM unit at the University Paris Descartes. His laboratory there, which he cofounded with Dr. Casanova in 1999, is devoted to identifying genes associated with infectious diseases and to developing statistical methods for use in genetic epidemiology.

His work in the last decade has led to the identification of several genes associated with susceptibility to leprosy, tuberculosis and several oncogenic viruses, which are believed to contribute to the development of cancer. With the advent of high throughput genotyping, his research has broadened in recent years to make use of powerful genome-wide association studies, which look at common variations in a person’s entire genome and test their role in specific diseases.

Although now separated by an ocean, Dr. Abel and Dr. Casanova continue to maintain a close scientific relationship; in addition to spending several weeks each year at Rockefeller, Dr. Abel will host Dr. Casanova several weeks each year in Paris, where Dr. Casanova holds a similar visiting position.

“The arrangement with Rockefeller allows us to continue working as a pair, but with the resources that Rockefeller can provide — especially postdoctoral fellows, strong technological platforms and extraordinary faculty in basic biomedical research,” says Dr. Abel. “It’s very exciting to become a member of this unique community.”

“Laurent’s innovative work on the genetics of infectious disease perfectly complements Jean-Laurent Casanova’s,” says Paul Nurse, the university’s president. “I am glad it has been possible to enable this important collaboration to continue.”