Francine Acher, a medicinal chemist and director of research at Université de Paris, is descended from one of only two known Jewish families that survived the Holocaust intact in the Warsaw ghetto. That single fact, she said, instilled in her a never-quit passion that may soon improve the lives of 10 million people living with Parkinson’s disease.
“My family gave me my boundless energy and motivation,” she said. “My mother had a very difficult life during the war. As a result, the ability to seize the day was important to her. She passed her enthusiasm and drive down to me. When I do something, I do it with all of my strength.”
Acher’s positive response to adversity has been tested repeatedly. She lost her father at just 14 years old. As the first generation of her family to be born in France, she always felt different from her friends.
“I was never going to let bad experiences stop me from having success in life,” she said. “I was different, but that made me even more determined to do well.”
Acher excelled at school and became passionate about science at an early age. During her doctoral studies, which focused on producing techniques for biochemistry, she earned a position at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) – a governmental research facility in Paris that paid to further her studies at the University of California, Berkeley. On her return to Paris, she joined a newly established chemistry-for-biology research laboratory at Université de Paris, where she has worked for the past 32 years.
Acher’s initial work involved making molecules that could help researchers understand the mechanism for blood clotting.
“The molecules I was creating weren’t really serving their intended purpose,” she said. “However, I discovered that they might have applications in the central nervous system (CNS). I contacted the people who were working in this area – a group of researchers working for CNRS in Montpellier, led by Jean-Philippe Pin – and I’m still working with them to this day. I’ve been part of the story since the beginning; that’s very important to me,” she said.
Together with Pin’s team, Acher and her colleagues have made a number of ground-breaking discoveries with significant implications for CNS disorders that include Parkinson’s disease, psychiatric disorders, pain, addiction and epilepsy.
“We are a multidisciplinary team comprising chemists, pharmacologists, molecular biologists and behavior biologists all working together,” Acher said. “Using 3D modeling software and simulation technology, we initially made major advances in investigations of receptor activation mechanism. Then we discovered a molecule by virtual screening that we developed into a series of more potent and more selective derivatives. These allowed us to validate the targeted receptors (mGluRs) as promising therapeutic targets for Parkinson’s disease, psychiatric disorders, pain, addiction and epilepsy. Pharmaceutical companies also took part in the MGluRs’ adventure. This has led to other molecules being developed, one of which is now being used in clinical trials for treating Parkinson’s disease.”
The research offers significant hope for reducing the negative side effects of existing CNS treatments.
“Currently, 70%-80% of Parkinson’s sufferers take Levodopa, a drug developed in the 1960s which, although it is effective in treating many of the symptoms of the disease, also brings disabling effects,” Acher said. “A drug deriving from our initial molecular discovery could reduce many of these side effects. One such drug is currently awaiting approval by the [US] Food and Drug Administration, if efficacy is proved on a large number of patients. If successful, it could transform the lives of over 10 million people living with the disease. My life’s work would be complete.”