Voted 2015 French Innovator of the Year as part of the MIT Technology Review’s annual search for the top ten innovators under the age of 35 (TR35), Xavier Duportet – enormously curious, fascinated by ‘ever-smaller things’, and a dyed-in-the-wool biologist – works to develop ‘intelligent’ antibiotics.

[Portrait of an Innovator] Xavier Duportet targets harmful bacteria with smart antibiotics

An innovator? His good fairy godmother must have sprinkled a liberal dose of curiosity dust into his cradle. Xavier Duportet is basically driven by discovery. “Start up a business, but first and foremost create” is his watchword. Passionate about research from his earliest years Xavier Duportet spent hours in the garden at home observing ants, and even went as far as breeding a colony in his bedroom. At the time his hero was an elderly but enthusiastic researcher. At a time when other twelve-year old children enjoyed relaxing during their holidays, Duportet went on his first placement to research the genetic engineering of the silkworm with this researcher. “He was the one who passed his passion for research on to me and encouraged me to specialise in genetics.” That summer, Duportet discovered for the first time that it was possible to modify a genetic code, a discovery which years later would provide the inspiration for his startup Eligo Bioscience.

Some years later at the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI) in Paris, he decided that his overriding interest was in synthetic biology. He took several research internships abroad, in New Zealand and the United States, and rounded them off with a thesis on genetic modification in mammals, under the aegis of MIT and the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA). In 2014 he founded PhageX, a startup which has since been renamed Eligo Bioscience, with David Bikard, a partner working at the Pasteur Institute.

The disruptive idea? To use genetic engineering to produce a new generation of antibiotics – eligobiotics. These are ‘smart’ antibiotics, in the sense that they can target bacteria and eradicate them, if necessary, depending on whether they have a resistant gene or a virulence gene. ‟By killing specific bacteria based on the code they carry in their genome, in contrast to traditional antibiotics which work like nuclear warheads and destroy everything in their path, eligobiotics keep the microbiota – the bacteria – completely intact.” Duportet and his team are doing a sort of Robin Hood act when they hack into the microbiom. The trick lies in altering the viruses in malevolent bacteria, using plasmin, i.e. synthetic DNA injected into the bacteria.

The DNA then encodes a protein, a nuclease, which plays the role of the Grim Reaper for bacteria. A bit like an antivirus or anti-malware, the nuclease first of all scans the bacteria DNA. If it detects a virulence or resistance gene, it cuts out the harmful sequence, allowing the rest to survive.

So how does this affect us?Diabetes, cancer and obesity are all very much linked to the presence of bacteria, and thus to an imbalance in the microbiota [all the different types of bacteria inside the human body]”. Eligo Bioscience technology can certainly kill resistant bacteria, thus reducing the risks during a surgical operation, for example, but it can also tackle dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance most commonly reported as a condition of the digestive tract. In the long term, the startup might offer patients a diagnosis of their body bacteria. Eligobiotics are designed to eliminate harmful bacteria in three days. The concept is beneficial and it’s sustainable. “When you eradicate the harmful bacteria, the bacteria that remain take their place and stop them from coming back,” explains Duportet.

And what does the future hold? The year Duportet has met with a lot of recognition: PhageX (the former name of Eligo Bioscience) was a winner at the Worldwide Innovation Challenge 2030 organised by the French Government and BPI France, won an award at the French national Tremplin Entreprises (‘Enterprise Springboard’) competition run by the French Senate and the ESSEC business school, and now he has been voted 2015 French Innovator of the Year by MIT Technology Review (MIT TR35). Xavier Duportet and his team are currently in discussion with investors with a view to raising the funds necessary to recruit four new researchers. The objective? “Basically to develop medicines to treat Crohn’s disease and, in the longer term, to develop an arsenal of eligobiotics to inject our little DNA circuits into the bacteria of our intestines.” Lastly, Duportet intends to further his entrepreneurial activity with the non-profit Hello Tomorrow and the Hello Tomorrow Challenge. An innovator himself, his wants to use the venture to create local innovator ecosystems worldwide. “In France we talk a lot about Web entrepreneurship, but there are lots of researchers who have masses of good ideas that no-one gets to hear about. My idea is to break down the silos and help them to meet business people, designers, engineers and also manufacturers.”

Information collected by Aurore Géraud and Lila Meghraoua