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Collaborating When Need and Opportunity Meet

Networking with brilliant people and thinking outside the box.

Dr. Jean-Frédéric Colombel’s career is marked by two guiding principles: network with brilliant people and think outside the box. These tenets have shaped his work from the very beginning. Forty years ago, as a newly-practicing gastroenterologist in Lille, France, Dr. Colombel saw a need and an opportunity. While his hospital served a populous region, it had no active research function in gastroenterology. Many of his patients suffered from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)—often multiple patients within families. At the same time, endoscopy emerged as an important new tool for exploring the gastrointestinal tract.

Collaborating with both private and public entities, Dr. Colombel established the first French population-based registry for IBD in 1988. The registry drew volunteer participation by researchers and clinicians, including the Nord-Pas de Calais Region’s 250 private gastrointestinal (GI) doctors. The resulting discoveries were transformative for the field. Their sampling of IBD families led to the identification of NOD2 as a susceptibility gene for Crohn’s disease in 2001. The later development of the ASCA test (anti-S. cerevisiae (mannan) antibodies) remains the most sensitive and specific serologic marker for Crohn’s disease.

“Collaborating with researchers who have no previous IBD experience can be invaluable. They bring fresh eyes and novel approaches to this work—they can see questions that we might miss completely!”

Fostering Networks

Shaped by the strong spirit of collaboration in the European research community, he participated in the development of the still-growing GETAID French network and the European Crohn’s and Colitis Organization to promote research and education in  IBD. Dr. Colombel participated in many of the pivotal clinical trials in IBD, helping to improve therapeutic strategies ranging from immunomodulators to biologics.

Dr. Colombel brought that spirit to Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine as Professor of Medicine. In 2013, he took on leadership of the school’s Helmsley IBD Center and hosted the hospital’s first-ever IBD retreat. Fortified by French pastries, the 60 attendees discovered and began pursuing collaborative possibilities.

The Genius of Unlikely Partners

The true value of a network is only as good as the ideas and outcomes it generates. For Dr. Colombel, one of the most fruitful strategies is to bring questions coming from clinical observation and practice to brilliant researchers with no IBD experience. Presented with a surprising finding in patient samples, these researchers will light up with curiosity—and help advance the field.

In one instance, he shared the curious finding of fatty tissue accumulation in Crohn’s disease patients with a top Mount Sinai researcher on metabolic diseases. Fascinated by this trait, she now collaborates with him in IBD-related research.

“I am fascinated by what researchers and clinicians can discover about patients before clinical evidence of their disease became apparent.”

Life Before IBD

Dr. Colombel with Dr. Joana Torres, one of the lead investigators in the US Army study. Photo credit: Dr. Colombel

Dr. Colombel is now training his sights on understanding “life before IBD.” What can researchers and clinicians learn before clinical evidence of patients’ disease becomes apparent?

Much of the data that could inform those discoveries may already exist. The US Army, for example, conducts a bi-annual blood sampling of its personnel over the entire course of their enlistment. Mount Sinai has a registry of families in the Jewish Orthodox community, including those with children suffering from IBD. This fall, the Helmsley IBD Center will bring these and other diverse public and private entities together for the first IBD prevention conference, in partnership with Janssen Research & Development.

As he looks to the future, Dr. Colombel is eager to support an international network of early-career scientists by bringing them to Mount Sinai as Fellows. To this next generation of clinicians and researchers, he offers the same guiding principles that energized his career—networking with the best minds and thinking outside of the box. While emerging technologies will play an important role, however, he cautions against letting technology drive research. Dr. Colombel believes the clinical questions arising from symptoms and samples—from the patients themselves—are always the best place to start.

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