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Julien Nicolas: Boosting drug efficiency

Researcher portraits Article published on 05 December 2018 , Updated on 14 October 2020

Julien Nicolas, research director at  Institut Galien (CNRS/Université Paris-Saclay) , has just received in 2018 the Novacap Prize from the Académie des Sciences. The prize is awarded to a scientist from a public or private French laboratory for "an innovation, breakthrough or new approach in the field of therapeutic chemistry and/or pharmacochemistry related to the mechanisms of chemical drugs." Working at the interface between chemistry and pharmacy, Julien Nicolas develops new polymer materials intended to deliver active principles, notably those with anti-cancer properties, and increase patient comfort.

Julien Nicolas knew early on that a research career was for him, but was undecided whether to go into chemistry or pharmacy. In 2001, he graduated from the École supérieure de chimie organique et minérale (ESCOM). He did a thesis funded by the French ministry in charge of research at Université Pierre et Marie Curie (now Sorbonne Université) on synthesizing nanoparticles by means of controlled free-radical polymerization in emulsion. He first got into pharmacology as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warwick in the U.K. "I developed synthetic polymers that could couple with therapeutic proteins to obtain bioconjugates and thus improve their properties, such as solubility and stability."


Transmitting the "research virus"

In early 2007, he returned to France and joined the Institut Galien, a multidisciplinary research entity specialized in nanomedicine. "When I was still an undergraduate at ESCOM, I attended a lecture by Catherine Dubernet, then working with Patrick Couvreur, professor of pharmacotechnology and biopharmacy at the Institut Galien. I realized that I wanted to explore the same areas of study." Having caught the "research virus" himself, he passes it on to the students he oversees. "It is extremely gratifying when they come in, beaming, to tell me that an experiment is working! I know that, when they move on, they'll be able to apply what they have learned, whether they are doing postdoctoral research, teaching at university or working for industry."


At the interface of chemistry, pharmacy and medicine

Among a team of twenty, Julien Nicolas is pursuing his dream career, situated at the interface between chemistry and medicine. "I develop new polymer materials that get better degradation results and are less toxic. The aim is to improve delivery of active principles to their site of action within an organism."


More effective therapies for Alzheimer's disease and cancer

Since 2012, Julien Nicolas has been developing biodegradable nanoparticles that can, once injected into the bloodstream, detect a marker for Alzheimer's disease. He has also devised an innovative method for synthesizing prodrug nanoparticulate systems to improve cancer therapy. "We grow polymers directly from active principles and couple them. This helps prevent escape from the nanoparticle and makes it possible to incorporate larger quantities." Today, Julien Nicolas is very much at home with the new synthesis methodology. "One can adapt it to different active principles, modify how they bond with the polymer or even alter the very nature of the polymer."


Capitalizing on innovations

Having received the Novocap Prize, "a great honor for myself and the team as a whole", Julien Nicolas aims to take his research to the next level. A grant from the European Research Council will help carry out this plan. Together with three colleagues, he is starting a new business to capitalize on his patents, especially those relative to cancer therapy. The idea is to rethink how anti-cancer drugs are administered, create new formulas and facilitate subcutaneous delivery. The ultimate objective is to substantially increase patient comfort and propose more effective therapies.