Luminary Patrick Couvreur, PhD

‘Interview with a Luminary’ is an exciting new project from the Young Scientist Committee! We sit down with a renowned researcher in the field of drug delivery every month and pick their brains on a variety of different topics including what sparked their interest in their chosen field, defining moments in their careers to date and what they enjoy doing outside of the lab. They will also offer advice to those starting out on their scientific careers which we’re sure every young researcher will be interested to hear! So, join us every month for an insight into the minds of those at the pinnacle of drug delivery research around the globe!

This month we showcase an inspiring interview with Professor Patrick Couvreur, the CRS 2019 Special Honouree. Patrick Couvreur is a professor of pharmacy at Paris-Sud University, member of the Académie des Sciences and holder of the chair of “Innovations Technologiques” (2009-2010) at the prestigious Collège de France.

Patrick Couvreur is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in the field of vectorization of drugs (nanomedicines) for the treatment of serious diseases (cancers, infectious diseases and diseases of the central nervous system). His work has been crowned by numerous scientific awards in France (Prix Galien 2009, Medal of Innovation CNRS 2012) and abroad (2004 Pharmaceutical Sciences World Congress Award, the prestigious Host-Madsen Medal in 2007, the European Pharmaceutical Scientist Award in 2011, the European Inventor Award 2013 and the Peter Speiser Award 2014 etc.). Prof Couvreur's contributions in the field of drug delivery and nanomedicine are highly recognized around the world with over 550 publications (Google Scholar H-index 127 and 70,000 citations). He founded three start-up companies (Bioalliance, entering the stock market in 2005, Medsqual and Squal Pharma) and developed an anticancer nanomedicine reaching phase III clinical trial for the treatment of resistant hepatocarcinoma.

Apart from the Académie des Sciences, he is also member of 3 other national Academies in France (Medicine, Pharmacy and Technology) and is appointed as a foreign member of 4 other Academies (the US National Academy of Engineering, the US National Academy of Medicine, and the Real Academia Nacional de Farmacia in Spain and the Académie Royale de Médecine in Belgium). By a decree of the President of the French Republic, Patrick Couvreur is appointed as “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur”.

We are honored to share this interview with you this month for an insight into Prof. Couvreur inspiring career!

  1. What sparked your interest in science in general and drug delivery in particular?

I was educated in a family with a medical and pharmaceutical culture. Indeed, my father was a pharmacist in the Belgian army in charge of the defence against chemical and bacterial weapons and my mother was a dentist. And in my family, careers in science and research were considered as being the more exciting. This familial culture has certainly influenced my choice to start pharmaceutical studies at the university. Due to my interest for the science in its broader sense (ie. chemistry, physics and biology), I had the conviction that the pharmaceutical studies were able to fill this interest, due to their strong interdisciplinary and pluridisciplinary character. I had the chance to start my studies of pharmacy at the “Université Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix” in Namur (Belgium), a small university but with an excellent background education in basic sciences. My interest for drug delivery came later, at the “Catholic University of Louvain” (Belgium), when at the end of my studies, Michel Roland, one of my professor, convinced me to start a PhD in Pharmaceutical Technology, a discipline which was however at that time considered as a second class discipline comparatively to molecular pharmacology and molecular biology, two star disciplines. But I felt once again that this emerging discipline could have a great impact in the future due to its pluridisciplinary character.

  1. Share a turning point or defining moment you experienced in your work as a scientist.

Performing my PhD thesis in a rather small laboratory, I was asked to clarify the mechanism of tablets disintegration. But my laboratory was very close to the laboratory of Christian de Duve, Nobel Prize of Medicine in 1974 when he discovered the lysosomes. From the friendship discussions I had with the PhD students of the Christian de Duve Lab, I understood quickly that it was often difficult to allow drugs to diffuse intracellularly. And the idea came “How to design mini pills able to deliver drugs intracellularly ?”. By chance, at the same time, just at the end of my PhD thesis, I had the opportunity to meet Peter Speiser, a professor at the ETH Zürich who was at that time the first to develop polymer nanocapsules for vaccination. And I asked Peter Speiser for a post-doctoral position in Zürich aiming at encapsulating anticancer compounds into these polyacrylamide nanocapsules for intracellular delivery purpose. Unfortunately, since the polymerization of the acrylamide monomer was performed by gamma irradiation, all tested anticancer compounds (ie. doxorubicin, actinomycin D, vincristine etc.) degraded quickly during the irradiation process. Thus, I decided to use a fluorescent compound resistant to gamma irradiation and I prepared fluorescein loaded polyacrylamide nanocapsules. When coming back at the University of Louvain, I performed with a colleague from the de Duve lab a very simple experiment. After incubation of fluorescein free with fibroblasts, the cells remained dark at the fluorescence microscope but after incubation of the fluorescent nanocapsules, the same fibroblasts became illuminated! This was a turning point showing for the first time that it was possible to use polymer nanocapsules to trigger the intracellular delivery of a non-diffusible compound. And we published in 1977 a first paper in the field entitled: “Nanocapsules, a new lysosomotropic carrier” (Couvreur P et al., FEBS Letters, 84, 323-326; 1977).

  1. Tell us about the exciting ways in which your particular field is progressing.

The nanomedicine field has then fast progressed due to advances in materials science. Indeed, it appeared very rapidly that it was needed to use biodegradable polymers for the design of clinically acceptable nanocarriers. Apart from liposomes, biodegradable polymers were synthesized, including polyalkylcyanoacrylates and polylactic-co-glycolic polymers. At the same time, the biopharmaceutical investigations have advanced very fast, showing that the opsonization was responsible for the clearance of the nanomedicines from the blood stream and for the capture by the reticulo-endothelial system. And the discovery that the functionalization of the drug nanocarriers with polyethylene glycol allowed to hinder protein adsorption and to induce steric repulsion has resulted in the construction of “stealth” blood long circulating nanocarriers. This has represented a very important step towards the control of the pharmacokinetic and the biodistribution of the drug nanocarriers. Then, the decoration of nanocarriers with specific ligands (ie. antibodies, aptamers, peptides or small molecules) has still improved cells and tissue targeting. More recently, the design of “smart” nanomedicines stimuli-responsive to either exogenous or endogenous stimuli and the concept of “nanotheranostic” gathering together an imaging and a therapeutic functionality are other important conceptual advances, even if the clinical translation of those concepts remains still limited.

  1. What is the best piece of professional advice you have received and from whom?

From my PhD mentor Michel Roland: “Work hard and never give-up” and from Peter Speiser my post-doctoral mentor: “be ambitious and dream”

  1. Would you change anything about your career path if you could start over?


  1. What advice would you give to someone who is starting their scientific career?

Answer: To be passionate, enthousiast, open mind, optimist and to be attentive to each unexpected experimental observation to see if it is not a potential starting point for a new discovery.

  1. What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab? What are your hobbies/interests?

Sport. I have practiced or I still practice hockey, tennis, French boxing, swimming, marathon, horse riding, trekking.