Junior Conferences at the CEA

Every trimester, the French National Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (INSTN), part of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) based in Saclay, France, organises a free conference aimed at young people. Middle and high school students come, sometimes accompanied by their parents, to listen to the researchers describing their work. The topics, often specialized, are always accessible and outlined with concrete examples.

On Tuesday, 17 June 2008, 13 million French people were getting ready for the France-Italy Euro 2008 match, while more than 600,000 high school students were taking the baccalaureate exams. Despite this, there were nearly 400 people present in Saclay in the INSTN’s amphitheatre (Institut national des sciences et techniques nucléaire), to attend the conference entitled Medicine’s journey in the body.

The CEA’s Junior Cyclops conferences draw crowds similar to those reading The Adventures of Tintin, that is young men and women aged between 7 and 77, passionate about science and technology. Moreover, the very first of these conferences, in March 2004, was closely linked to the famous comic book reporter’s trail. Entitled So where is the Temple of the Sun?, the conference offered a real scientific investigation into Herge’s universe. Roland Lehoucq, an astrophysicist, cleared up certain points and took advantage of the opportunity to explain the mechanism of solar eclipses, travel in outer space and the true nature of Mystery Island… With only one conference per school trimester, on Tuesday night at 8pm, these junior-oriented conferences address very diverse topics: global warming, earthquakes and tsunamis, atoms, lasers, radioactivity, genetics, virtual reality… Each time a specialist is in charge of making his field accessible to a wider audience.

Today, Éric Ezan, biologist and director of the CEA’s drug metabolism research laboratory (LEMM), will introduce us to pharmacokinetics! He will only pronounce that barbarous word once, only to explain it: “Pharmacology studies the effects of medicine on the body. Pharmacokinetics does the opposite: it studies the effects of the living organism on the medicine.

And so, we embark on a one-hour journey into the core of the human body. What is medicine? How is it made? How does it react? Why does it come in various forms?

To answer all of these questions the speaker briefly reminds us of what a cell is, how the human body functions, describes the circulatory system, the nervous system… His presentation on the development of medicine takes us from ancient Egypt to biotechnology. The anecdotes ensue: from aspirin, derived from willow bark since antiquity but only commercialized in France for the last century, to Alexander Flemming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, not to mention treatments against hypertension extracted from the venom of an Amazonian viper … Lastly, before going into the raw subject matter, Éric Ezan describes the process of marketing a medicine. Between 12 and 14 years of testing go by, from its discovery to its commercialization, for a cost nearing 700 million Euros!

Now we are ready to follow the perilous path of medicine in the body. It can be described as perilous, due to the fact that our organism fights against the medicine by putting up numerous barriers and attempting to destroy it. Acid in the stomach, enzymes in the liver, proteins in the blood – such are the obstacles in the path of the gel capsule, pill or syrup, which end up in the kidneys where they are eliminated. Faced with these multiple “attacks” inside the body, the medicine is modified and transformed and only a tiny part succeeds in reaching its target and taking action. “Imagine a quarter of a pill dissolved in an Olympic pool, suggests the expert, and you’ll have an idea of the concentration of medicine in the body.

Such small quantities remind us that it is important to respect the dosage. Moreover, the speaker explains that the effectiveness of a medicine depends, not only on the dosage but also on respecting the intervals between each dose, maintaining a certain level of concentration of the product in the body. In conclusion, he reiterates that we are all different when it comes to medicine: how medicine acts on the body varies from one individual to another, depending on age, weight, diet, genetics…

Pharmacy is obviously a very complex issue. Up to then, the room was silent. It came alive again. The younger members of the audience are the first to ask questions. They come from all angles.

- When medicine is found in nature, is it liquid?
Generally we extract them in the form of a white powder, specifies the researcher.
- I didn’t understand if it was good or bad that medicine is transformed once inside the body…
Actually, it has to transform itself to react, not to stay stuck to proteins in the blood for example.
- Is it true that snakes and plants produce medicine?
Yes, vegetation and animals are like chemical factories that secrete “healing” substances. Moreover, the only plants that survive are those that are capable of producing such substances, allowing them to resist attacks (notably germs).
- How can medicine become toxic?  
If the concentration is too high, if the quantities in the cells are too large.
- Why doesn’t stomach acid remove the effects of medicine?
Medicine is coated to resist, and we can even make syrups that are resistant.
- Is it true that suppositories are more effective?
No, not necessarily…

The subject obviously fascinates all those present. Needless to say it concerns us all. And when it is the older crowd’s turn to have the floor, their questions show their concerns: they are more centered on the resistance to medicine and dependence, and the specifications of individual treatments…

Leaving the room, Antoine, 13 years old, sums it up for his two brothers, Rémy, 11 years old and Maxime, 8 years old: “Medicine enters the body and transforms itself, reacts and then is eliminated.” Pharmacokinetics isn’t that complicated after all…

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Junior Conferences at the CEA

Junior Conferences at the CEA

Every trimester, the French National Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (INSTN), part of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) based in Saclay, France, organises a free conference aimed at young people. Middle and high school students come, sometimes accompanied by their parents, to listen to the researchers describing their work. The topics, often specialized, are always accessible and outlined with concrete examples.

See more