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Philippe Langella: a brilliant career marked by major discoveries on probiotics and intestinal microbiota

Researcher portraits Article published on 12 April 2024 , Updated on 26 April 2024

Philippe Langella is Director of Research at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE) and Leader of the Commensals and Probiotics-Host Interactions (ProbiHôte) team in the Microbiology of Human Health Laboratory (MICALIS - Univ. Paris-Saclay, INRAE, AgroParisTech). His research focuses on the use of commensal and probiotic bacteria for their potential beneficial effects on human and animal health.

Philippe Langella began his higher education in biology at the University of Grenoble in 1976, before pursuing a Master's degree in industrial and applied microbiology in Marseille. His passion for microbiology led him to complete a PhD thesis at the Dairy Technology Research Laboratory (Laboratoire de recherche de technologie laitière) in Rennes, on lactic acid bacteria and their potential health benefits. In 1984, he moved to Quebec as a scientific and technical volunteer as part of his national service. For eighteen months, he worked in the R&D department of Delisle, a company producing fermented dairy products (now Danone).

Discovering the potential of genetically-modified lactic acid bacteria

In 1989, Philippe Langella moved to Jouy-en-Josas (Essonne) and joined the Dairy Research and Applied Genetics Unit (URGLA) as an INRAE research fellow. There, he continued his research on lactic acid bacteria and, from 1994, led a team dedicated to this field. In 2005, he published his findings: the use of genetically-modified lactic acid bacteria to express a human papillomavirus antigen (responsible for a large proportion of cervical cancers) provided effective protection against papillomavirus-induced cancer for treated mice. "This discovery illustrates the immense potential of modified food bacteria in preventing certain pathologies."

Exploring the effects of probiotic bacteria against inflammatory bowel disease

In 2004, Philippe Langella joined the Unit of Ecology and Physiology of the Digestive Tract (UEPSD), broadening his research to include trials on murine models. This approach allowed him to explore the effects of bacteria, from test tube to digestive tract. He embarked on studying the potential health effects of traditional probiotics (found in dietary supplements and fermented dairy products), in particular lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, in murine models of colitis. He discovered that these bacteria have significant anti-inflammatory properties. He then conducted tests on mice presenting severe intestinal inflammation, reproducing some of the symptoms of chronic inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Philippe Langella convinced the management of INRAE's Partnership and Transfer for Innovation Department of the growing interest in probiotics, and organised two symposia, in 2006 and 2008, bringing together academics and industrial professionals from the field. "These meetings were a real success and established industrial partnerships with food supplement companies, such as Pilège, and pharmaceutical companies, such as Biocodex, which market probiotic medications."

Discovery of Fprau, a next-generation probiotic bacterium

In 2006, Philippe Langella began working with Harry Sokol, a Professor and Hospital Doctor in Gastroenterology at Saint-Antoine Hospital, who was writing a thesis on the analysis of the microbiota composition of patients with Crohn's disease. Together, they examined these microbiota and discovered the bacterium Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (Fprau), absent in relapsed patients but present in those in remission. They then demonstrated its protective effect in murine models of colitis. "This was the beginning of a long story that changed our lives and those of our team! We were the first to identify a next-generation probiotic bacterium with potential human health benefits based on human clinical data." The publication of this discovery in 2008 in the American journal PNAS, now cited 4,000 times, paved the way for countless studies on Fprau and the microbiota imbalances observed in other pathologies, such as cancer, obesity or metabolic syndrome.

Leadership of ProbiHôte at the MICALIS Institute

In 2010, Philippe Langella, who had been Deputy Director of UEPSD since 2004, helped to establish the MICALIS Institute. Since 2014, he has been its Deputy Director, responsible for the Food and Digestive Ecosystems Department. He leads a team of around sixty experts in microbiology, molecular biology, intestinal physiology and bioinformatics. Their work involves analysing the interactions of commensal and probiotic microorganisms with the host, in order to gain a deeper understanding of these interactions and exploit this knowledge to develop innovative preventive and therapeutic strategies for human health.

Creation of the start-up Exeliom Biosciences

After a sabbatical at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada in 2011, where he mixed with gastroenterologists and start-up founders, Philippe Langella returned to France with some new ideas. With the support of INRAE's value creation unit, he embarked on the entrepreneurial adventure to set up a biotech company at the end of 2015. Together with Harry Sokol and Patrick Gervais, a lecturer at the University of Burgundy and AgroSup Dijon, they laid the foundations for Nextbiotix, renamed Exeliom Biosciences in 2019, with Benjamin Hadi as CEO. To date, the start-up has raised €27 million. Exeliom's ambition is to transform Fprau into a drug candidate to treat IBD and recurrent Clostridioides difficile infections and improve the efficacy of immunotherapy treatments in cancer patients. "We have obtained promising results on these therapeutic targets using murine models. We are now ready to assess our drug candidate in various clinical trials planned for 2024. If all goes well, a drug could be available on the market in six to seven years."

Probiotics and prebiotics: new perspectives

In addition to intestinal inflammation, the research conducted by Philippe Langella's team extends to other areas. They are working on prebiotics, the dietary fibres essential for nourishing intestinal microbiota, with promising results for health. They are also focusing on the first 1,000 days of life during which the transmission of microbiota from mother to child plays a crucial role. The team has demonstrated differences in the microbiota of newborns delivered vaginally as opposed to by caesarean section and is working on the design of probiotic-enriched formula milk to support the microbiota of caesarean babies.

The Grand Prix des Lauriers: a crowning achievement before retirement

Every year, INRAE honours a researcher from one of its fourteen departments with the INRAE Grand Prix des Lauriers for scientific excellence. In 2023, Philippe Langella was awarded the prize by Sylvie Retailleau, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, at a ceremony in November of that year. Now approaching retirement, he is preparing to step down as head of his laboratory, a role that he plans to hand over to his deputy, Jean-Marc Chatel, in a year's time. However, "driven by an unwavering passion for my profession, I then plan to spend another year in my laboratory completing my current projects, before moving onto what can only be described as a well-deserved retirement!" A smooth transition to conclude his work and pass on his scientific legacy.


Philippe Langella