A demonstration model shows the position of an experimental brain implant for treating Parkinson’s disease using near-infrared light, developed by the Grenoble-based research institute CEA-Leti and its partners.Credit: Oscar B Studio

Cécile Moro is a biologist at CEA-Leti, an electronics and information-technology research institute at the government-funded Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Grenoble, France. She is co-leading a first-in-humans clinical trial of a brain implant designed to treat Parkinson’s disease using near-infrared (NIR) light.

What is Grenoble like as a place to work in medical-technology research and development?

Parisians might not agree, but I think it is the best place in France to work in medical technology. We have easy access to the cutting-edge technology and expertise of the CEA, leading technology companies and the research-intensive Grenoble Alpes University Hospital (CHU). The city also has a culture and a history of innovation.

How did you become involved in research on using NIR light to slow the progress of Parkinson’s disease?

From 2009 I worked at Clinatec, a biomedical research centre in Grenoble, which was established by CEA-Leti and the CHU to bring researchers, physicians and engineers together. I was working on a brain–computer interface, carrying out preclinical tests on a device that decodes electrical signals in the brains of people who have lost limbs, so they can control prosthetic arms or move using exoskeletons.

Photo of Cécile Moro

Biologist Cécile Moro.Credit: Cécile Moro

That project was led by neurosurgeon Alim Louis Benabid, the chair of the Clinatec board, who had also pioneered the use of deep-brain stimulation to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. From around 2010, we worked with a team of biologists and engineers to develop an implant to deliver NIR light into the brain. Using rodent and non-human primate models of Parkinson’s disease, we found that animals treated with NIR light had symptoms that were much less severe than those in untreated animals.

How does the treatment work?

We do not fully understand the mechanism yet. Parkinson’s disease is the result of the death of cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Previous research has shown that NIR light can activate cellular organelles called mitochondria, which generate most of cells’ energy needs. The leading hypothesis is that this can protect dopamine-producing neurons from stress caused by the disease. However, the light could have impacts on other cells, so there might be other mechanisms involved.

How new is this approach and what are your hopes for it?

Others have tried shining the light in from outside, but this is the first time anyone has brought it directly into the brain to ensure it penetrates deeply enough. We have implanted our first devices as part of a clinical trial with our partners, the CHU and Boston Scientific, the US biotech and biomedical company. Seven participants will be followed for four years and compared with controls. The study is looking at safety and tolerability, but we have some measures of efficacy. Our hope is that we can slow or even stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease, and improve people’s quality of life.

What is Grenoble like for early-career researchers?

It’s a really good place for young scientists because there is so much cutting-edge work happening here, and so many great opportunities. My group, for example, has just been funded by the French national research agency CNRS to investigate the potential of light to slow or stop other neurodegenerative diseases, especially Huntington’s disease. So I’m looking for a postdoc to carry out preclinical testing as part of a three-year programme on that.

And what is the city like to live in?

Using a car can be a problem as there are a lot of traffic jams. Getting about by bicycle or public transport is quick, however. I think it is helpful for people who work on advanced technologies to maintain a balance and stay connected to nature. That is really easy here in Grenoble because we are so close to the Alps. I love to go on long walks, go skiing and climb mountains.