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Chretien Moonen

All-out War on Cancer

chretien moonen

© F. Vrignaud/CNRS Photothèque

Open-minded and curious about everything, Chretien “Chrit” Moonen is the opposite of an ivory tower scientist. The Dutch researcher, now 53, is a polyglot who speaks Dutch, French, English, and German. Born in the Maastricht region (Netherlands), Moonen grew up on a farm. He admits that this is maybe what subconsciously drew him to an agricultural university for his early studies. But the biggest draw was his desire to study the three subjects that fascinated him the most: chemistry, physics, and biology.
And though science is undoubtedly his realm, Moonen, unlike many other researchers, has an almost visceral need to see the results of his research put into practice. “Fundamental research is all very well, but what matters are its clinical applications,” he says. Indeed, this explains why he has always sought to involve doctors in his work on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), like Hervé Trillaud, who has been working with Moonen for the past ten years on real-time control by MRI of several non-invasive technologies aimed at fighting cancer. A radiologist at the Saint-André hospital in Bordeaux, Trillaud even says that Moonen is “unhappy when he doesn't see doctors in his lab on a regular basis.”
After a memorable year at the Federal Polytechnic School in Zürich, where he studied in the laboratories of future Nobel Prize winners Richard Ernst1 and Kurt Wüthrich,2 it was in 1983, the year of his PhD on the structure of proteins, that Moonen steered his research toward medical applications.
At the time, one of the main methods to study protein structure involved nuclear magnetic resonance. So when magnetic resonance imaging, which was to completely transform radiology, was developed, Moonen became enthralled. A few years later, at the age of only 31, he became director of the MRI research center at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington. He has fond memories of his long stay in the US. “Very little paperwork, no need to apply for funding, and cutting-edge lab equipment... It was heaven for a researcher,” he recalls. But Moonen and his French wife decided to return to Europe. “We didn't want our kids to have to move constantly during their adolescence. As we are nonetheless culturally more European, we decided to move back here.”
Moonen arrived in Bordeaux in 1996 and joined CNRS, which presented an advantage of great value: it offered jobs that were “entirely dedicated to research.” He was therefore able to devote all his time to developing a mini-invasive therapy that uses focused ultrasound guided by MRI. His interdisciplinary laboratory, which brings together physicists, computer scientists, and biologists, received the 2006 Antony-Bernard Oise Award for their painstaking work in fighting cancer, a work that has been backed for the last ten years by the National Anti-Cancer League.
The device co-developed by Moonen's lab and produced by the company Philips is undergoing clinical trials at the Saint-André hospital in Bordeaux, in the department run by Trillaud. “The machine has been under a clinical research protocol since June 2008. We have treated around ten patients for uterine fibroma,” Trillaud explains. This is just a first step before treating cancers of the breast, kidney, and possibly liver, the real-world applications so close to Moonen's heart.

Dominique Salomon

Notes :

1. Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1991 for his contribution to the development of multidimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
2. Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2002 for his work on the use of multidimensional nuclear magnetic resonance for the study of protein structure.

Contacts :

Chretien Moonen,
IMF, Bordeaux.


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