Biotech, the People Behind the Science

Meet Dr. Kouassi. Discovering blood biomarkers to improve diagnosis of mental-health disorders.

The diagnosis and treatment of mental-health disorders currently rely primarily on clinical symptoms. The discovery of blood biomarkers of mental health is expected to accelerate and improve the diagnosis of mental-health disorders, and facilitate the monitoring of patients’ responses to treatment.

Name: Dr. Édouard Kouassi
Title: Associate Professor and Researcher at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Montreal, Quebec
  Director of the Immunopharmacology Lab at the Research Centre, Montreal University Mental Health Institute, Quebec
Organization: University of Montreal and Montreal University Mental Health Institute 
Expertise: 1. Molecular mechanisms of the connection between the brain and the immune system; role of soluble mediators (cytokines, neurotransmitters) and therapeutic implications in neuroinflammatory diseases (stroke, Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis, etc.), and in mental health disorders (schizophrenia, major depression, etc.)
  2. Clinical pharmacy in hospital and community settings
  3. Ecosystem approaches to health (interplay between environment and health)
Background: Pharmacy/Pharmacology, Toxicology, Immunology. Recipient of a five-year career award in health sciences jointly by Rx&D and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research

I am most passionate about... Developing peripheral blood-tests to help improve the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of mental-health disorders. Currently, the diagnosis and treatment of mental-health disorders, that affect a large part of the population worldwide, rely primarily on clinical symptoms. Although mental-health disorders are mainly the result of dysfunctions of brain biochemistry, there are a number of repercussions of these dysfunctions outside the brain, in peripheral blood, that can be exploited to complement clinical data. Because blood samples are easily accessible – more easily than the brain, and less invasive, the discovery of blood biomarkers of mental health is expected to accelerate and improve the diagnosis of mental-health disorders. It is also expected to facilitate the monitoring of patients’ responses to psychological and/or pharmacological treatments. In this context, my laboratory is contributing to an ongoing project called the “Signature Bank” consisting of banking clinical data and biological samples of blood, saliva and hairs from patients with mental-health disorders that are admitted to the Montreal University Mental Health Institute. These data and biospecimens are being used to explore specific research and clinical questions. For example, in collaboration with colleagues at the Signature Bank, we are conducting an ongoing research on the relationship between childhood maltreatment, immune dysfunctions and major depressive disorders later during adulthood.

What do you wish the public would know about your field? The brain is tightly connected to the immune systems through a number of mechanisms involving soluble mediators, such as cytokines and neurotransmitters. These molecules are expressed both in the brain, and in the peripheral blood. This opens the door for potential use of these molecules as blood biomarkers of mental-health disorders. Novel blood tests and novel therapeutic strategies are likely to emerge. 

I am most proud about... Serotonin is a well-known neurotransmitter involved in multiple functions of the brain; it plays an important role in regulation of the mood, in sleep behavior, etc. Serotonin is also present in the blood serum where it regulates the tonus of blood vessels (hence the name «serotonin»). We discovered that addition of serotonin to existing nutritive media improves the quality of red blood cells during their storage in blood banks. This implies a better survival of the red cells in the blood after transfusion, and better outcome in patients receiving these blood products. Our invention is currently under evaluation for a patent, and it has entered the national phase in the US.

Biggest misconception about biotech is... Not sure what the biggest misconception about biotech is. However, in my view, misconception is generally related to misinformation, and biotech does not make an exception. Public education is needed to show the advantages and potential limitations of biotech. The acceptance of biotech is probably better in some fields, for example in medicine for the cure of life-threatening illnesses, than in others such as genetically engineered seeds. In all cases, knowing the benefits and risks associated with the use of biotech products will help policymakers make the right decisions.

To someone just starting in biotech I would say... Three secrets: passion, passion, and passion.

What’s the best part about working in biotech? The pleasure of contributing to increase our common knowledge, and to improve healthcare by developing or using products and processes based on biological resources. And above all, the joy of discovery.

Most-admired scientist: Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Physicist and Scientist, for his view on the physics of the universe.

Favorite pastimes: Playing tom-tom drum and guitar, and listening to music (Angélique Kidjo, Stromae, Jimi Hendrix).

Favorite Book:  “The Road Less Traveled” by Scott Peck (1978).

Favorite destination: Grand-Popo: a small village in Benin/West Africa where I was born, on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and a river called Mono.