Jacqueline Clavel, a pioneer in child health

Dark hair and soft eyes, Jacqueline Clavel is not used to putting herself forward. She is however one of the first to have worked on the origins of pediatric cancers, a field of research long neglected in France, while around 1,700 new cases are diagnosed each year in children under 15 years of age.

“I started to work on leukemia in adults, explains this research director at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), within the epidemiology of childhood and adolescent cancer team (Epicea). Then I decided to develop specific research on children, which did not yet exist. The beginnings were not easy because we were not supported at all. But the associations of parents concerned have greatly helped to raise the ambitions in this area. “

Trained at Necker Hospital

In 1995, it was she who created the first register of pediatric cancers, making it possible to identify hematologic malignancies (blood cancers) throughout the territory. Since 2000, it also lists solid tumors. “Listing them throughout France allows us to identify contrasts and provides a solid basis for research”, explains this daughter of a pediatrician and a speech therapist, who has always dreamed of becoming a researcher.

Trained in medicine at the Necker Hospital in Paris, she began her career studying kidney functions. After the sudden loss of her husband, father of their first child, she turns to other horizons. “To recover from this period, I chose to go towards epidemiology, a fundamental field of research where we have to look for causality and consistency. An exciting challenge. ” His choice is the study of cancers, “Because it’s a disease that affects everyone”.

Professional illnesses

In its early days, the most advanced research concerned occupational health, where exposure factors (ionizing radiation, radon, road traffic, etc.) are more easily observed. “For pesticides, it is the study of high concentrations in farmers and winegrowers that has enabled progress on this subject in the general population. “

Its work on the impact of pesticides on pediatric cancers is still ongoing, more than ten years after its start. With her team, she is preparing a map to assess the exposure to pesticides of 9,000 sick children. “It’s a long and slow job, she continues. We have a cohort of 60,000 child witnesses. There is so much data to collect and verify that we won’t see the results for two or three years. “

While she is delighted that environmental health is finally on the political agenda, she recalls that the scientific community has been working on it for more than twenty years, against all odds. “I don’t want to be in the register of complaints, but we are constantly suffocated by material constraints, she sums up. We must constantly push, convince, raise funds … In my team of around thirty researchers, there are only three of us. All the others are contractual… ”

Impact of road traffic

His laboratory is conducting several research projects simultaneously, such as the impact of high-voltage lines on the risk of developing cancer, the influence of birth conditions on children’s immunity, the genetic origins of these diseases, etc.

Other studies have already delivered their results, such as the increased risk of myeloid leukemia near major highways. “Without waiting for science to speak, we can already take preventive measures, she advises. No passive smoking, no handling of pesticides during pregnancy, no strollers behind car exhaust. “

Jacqueline Clavel places a lot of hope in the very recent formation of a consortium of researchers from around the world, which will hunt for four years the origins of pediatric cancers. “This will allow us to change scale and access new data”, she enthuses.

No question, for this grandmother of eight grandchildren, to consider a retirement for the next five years. “We have just spent ten years laying the foundations for major research. I want to see the results, she smiles. Some would say my investment is too large. But working on childhood cancer is extremely motivating. It is not a job that we do halfway … “

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His inspiration: from Pastor to Mandela

“At the age of 7, I was marked by a documentary on Louis Pasteur, says Jacqueline Clavel. This figure of the scientist behind his microscope impressed me. ” Then it’s the character “Immensely creative” of Marie Curie who made him realize “That one could dream of being a woman in this profession”.

The researcher readily cites Nelson Mandela among her reference figures. “His moral strength, his tenacity, his willingness to move the lines were impressive. It is a great encouragement in the face of adversity. “ When she is not devoting herself to her research, Jacqueline Clavel takes advantage of hers and plays the piano, a long-standing passion. “Music is a major part of my life. “

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