By Shireen Federico, Manager, Publications
Naughty. Overactive. Insolent. This is how Professor Laurent Rénia, a world-renowned expert in infectious disease and immunology, describes himself as a young boy growing up in the city of Paris.
“My mother had to channel a lot of my energy into sports, like football and volleyball. This way, I would be ‘dead’ by the time I got home from school,” he laughed, eyes twinkling as he marveled at the wisdom of his mum.
Adamant that he is still naughty and insolent to this day, Prof Rénia joined LKCMedicine in April 2021 as a Professor of Infectious Diseases. He was also recently appointed the School’s Director of the Respiratory and Infectious Diseases Programme, starting from 1 July.
Prior to these appointments, Prof Rénia spent almost all his 15 years in Singapore at A*STAR as a senior principal investigator, as well as the Executive Director of the Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) for seven years. In 2020, he also initiated the Infectious Diseases Labs at A*STAR.
After a lifetime spent pursuing breakthroughs in science, the 58-year-old French citizen now stands at the peak of his career as one of the world’s leading experts in infectious diseases and the human immunological response. His interest in the biological sciences bubbled to the surface very early in his life.
“I was always fascinated with nature, especially animals. Like most children, I wanted to be a veterinarian. My mother encouraged and nurtured that interest by giving me lots of books about biology to read. I remember one called Biology 2000. She also gave me a small microscope with little slides to play with,” he mused.
This interest in biology remained with him throughout university and when the time came for him to choose a laboratory to intern at, his top choice was for a marine biologist position. But all had been filled. There were no vacancies left.
Disappointed, the young Laurent continued to call all the labs on the internship placement list because the work attachment was a mandatory component of his master’s degree.
“This was before the age of emails. So, I had to make many telephone calls. That tells you how old I am.”
As he systematically worked his way down the list, most of the positions were focused on biochemistry. Then he came across an interesting one on tropical medicine.
“The word ‘tropical’ meant ‘travel’ to me. It sounded fun. So, I called the lab and they said to come in for an interview. When I met with the second-in-charge of the medical department, he explained that they had two groups studying two different tropical diseases – one was working on Leishmania (a parasitic disease spread by the bite of sand flies found in parts of the tropics, subtropics, and southern Europe), and the other was on Malaria (a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease that occurs in tropical regions). “I had heard the word ‘Malaria’ before but didn’t know what it was. So, I told him that Malaria sounded good and that I would like to meet the person in charge of the Malaria group.”
It turned out to be a most fun interview for the budding scientist. It was held in the waiting room of Hospital Pitie-Salpetriere because that was where the Malaria lab was located. He met with Professor Dominique Mazier, the woman who headed the lab, and volunteered to start work the next day.
“This is how I got started in the field of infectious diseases and I have spent the past 25 years studying Malaria. I ended up doing my PhD with this lady, before leaving for the US to do my post-Doctorate, and then came back to her unit to start my own lab with her. To this day, she remains a mentor to me, even though she has retired.”
Prof Rénia chose to specialise in immunology because immunology, diseases, and cell biology are fascinating to him.
“It is about how the body defends itself. I’ve ventured into other viruses since arriving in Singapore 15 years ago, like chikungunya, Zika, and dengue. But Malaria will always be my favourite infectious disease. It is the most challenging disease for me because Malaria is hundreds of times more complicated in terms of life cycle. We still know very little about its biology and immunology. To study it in the lab is incredibly complex because of the different phases involved and the culture conditions are very difficult to control. So, working on Malaria is a big challenge operationally and intellectually, and that is why I like it. I like (studying) SARS-CoV-2 because it is fun too. New viruses are always fun to study because you have to start from scratch,” he explained.
“And a lot of the things that I had learnt about Malaria, I could apply to other diseases and their vaccines.”It is not surprising that, for the past 18 months, Prof Rénia has dedicated most of his time to COVID-19 and its vaccines. He is a member of Singapore’s COVID-19 task force and sits on all the three expert committees and is consistently busy with processing viral samples, analysing the data, and providing his best recommendations to the government to guide their healthcare and vaccine policies.
The first committee, which is tasked with recommending which vaccines to buy, is still very active.
“We’re looking at what we call vaccine 2, vaccine 2.0, booster shots. We’re also looking at how to deal with the variants that are emerging now,” he said.
“This most recent wave of infections is not surprising. It’s like the flu. You’ll have outbreaks and mini outbreaks, even when people ae vaccinated. And with more pressure put on the virus – like vaccinations and medical treatments – the virus will continue to evolve. We will have to keep learning and adapting as the pandemic develops.”
Prof Rénia and his team are now closely studying the immune response of fully vaccinated people in Singapore and the results of the findings are expected to be published sometime in the next two to three months.
This is important because only four per cent of the participants involved in the clinical trials conducted in China, the US and the UK are Asians.
“In the US, for example, ‘Asians’ include all Asians. The studies do not consider the different Asian races,” he explained. “Our study differentiates the races – the Chinese, Malays, and Indians. We want to know if the different groups will respond in the same ways to infection or will their protective immune responses differ? Knowing this will go a long way in helping us build better vaccines for the Asian populations.”
Having now made so many significant contributions to the advancement of the biological sciences that have benefitted the world, what does Prof Rénia consider to be his greatest career highlight to date?
“This is a personal thing. I would have to say that my biggest career highlight is having two parasites named after me. One is a parasite from the intestines of a rabbit, called Eimeria-reniai, and the other one is a bird Malaria named Plasmodium-reniai,” he said, laughing again.
“Another mentor of mine, Professor Irene Landau, was a parasitologist based in the French Museum of Natural History, and I had worked with her for many years. And so, when she identified these two parasites, she gave my name to them out of recognition to me. For me, this is a big career highlight. Papers will disappear, but a name will stay forever.”