Dr. Michel G. Bergeron

Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research Université Laval, Professor Medical Biology
Researcher of the month: 
Sep 2012

The Threat

Despite improvements in sanitary conditions, the development of vaccinations and the discovery of new effective antimicrobials, deadly infectious diseases continue to kill tens of millions of people every year. In 2012, infectious diseases remain the leading cause of death throughout the world, and the third leading cause of death in North America.

Hampering efforts to prevent, control and treat infectious diseases is the very nature of the conventional diagnostic cycle itself used in making clinical diagnoses. From taking a sample of the patient (stool, nasal swab, urine, etc.) to being able to make an informed healthcare decision, the conventional Pasteur microbiology or culture-based diagnostics typically take more than 48 hours – a window of time that leads to slow and poor management of infectious diseases, over use of antibiotics, increased microbial resistance to antibiotics, increased hospital-acquired infections, high healthcare costs, poor control of epidemics, and ultimately, more deaths. 

The Game Changer

Having recognized the urgent need to break the current slow diagnostic cycle, Dr. Michel G. Bergeron is well on his way to forever revolutionizing how, and how fast, we diagnose infectious diseases.

Founder and director of the Infectious Disease Research Centre (IDRC) of Laval University, Dr. Bergeron has become a world-renowned physician and infectious diseases researcher by focusing on the development of diagnostic tests based on the DNA of microbes rather than bacterial cultures.

“I asked myself many years ago what was lacking in the practice of medicine,” says Dr. Bergeron. “There was an obvious need for rapid testing in infectious diseases. That realization was, and continues to be, the basis of my vision and mission.”

In 2002, a Canadian start-up company called Infectio-Diagnostic (IDI) Inc. founded by Dr. Bergeron (now BD Diagnostics), one of the by-products of Dr. Bergeron’s vision and mission, revolutionized infectious disease diagnostics with a new laboratory test for Group B Streptococcus in pregnant women (the first cause of neonatal meningitis in newborns). The IDI-Strep B test (now the BD GeneOhm™ StrepB Assay), provided results in one hour and was the very first non-culture test that met the performance criteria recommended by the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines in testing for the Group B Streptococcus bacteria.

Published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, this was the first of several real-time tests Dr. Bergeron has developed that have helped transform health-care by enabling earlier and more definitive clinical decisions, and thereby improving the quality while decreasing the cost of patient care.

The economic impact of Dr Bergeron’s research in diagnostics has been tremendous, as BD Diagnostics has establish itself in Québec City with investments of more than $800 million in the Quebec Metro High Tech Park and the creation of more than 375 highly qualify jobs.
Several other tests developed by IDRC and IDI are now on the market and are helping control methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Clostridiumdifficile and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) infections in hospitals.

“Our rapid DNA-based diagnostic tests allow microbes to be identified within one hour, a clear improvement over the 48 hours required in traditional clinical microbiology testing.

With this rapid detection and identification of infectious agents by employing DNA analyses of microbial genes, medication scan also be prescribed much more accurately and appropriately, thereby avoiding the overuse of antibiotics and subsequent microbial resistance.

Bringing the Lab to the Patient

Speed in diagnoses also allows quick isolation of patients thus avoiding the dissemination of hospital-acquired infections like MRSA, C. difficile and VRE.

“We need to break the existing diagnostic cycle by providing rapid diagnosis at the point-of-care,” insists Dr. Bergeron. “That’s why the aim of our research is to have these technologies at bedside, to have this technology in the doctor’s office, to have very simple instruments and devices that can be handled by almost any person, not just the doctor himself, but also his administrative assistant, or even the patient himself.”

Dr. Bergeron and his multidisciplinary team are currently focused on developing ‘compact discs’ which would have the ability to read DNA and permit the detection of microbes in less than one hour, right in the doctor’s office. His long-term goal is to transform today’s laboratory-centered, slow, impersonal medicine into tomorrow’s patient-centered, real-time, personalized medicine at the point-of-care.

“In other words,” explains Dr. Bergeron, “we are striving to bring the lab to the patient, not the other way around.”

Big Things Have Small Beginnings

In 1974, not long after completing a postdoctoral fellow in microbiology and infectious diseases at Tufts University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston, Dr. Bergeron founded the Infectious Disease Research Center (IDRC) at Laval University out of a deeply-seated mission to develop innovative approaches to diagnose, prevent, and treat infectious diseases, not only in Canada but throughout the world.

Dr. Bergeron has grown the IDRC into the largest and one of the best sponsored research groups in infectious diseases in the world, composed of 250 researchers trained in high technology. The center has achieved major breakthroughs, including the discovery and development of the Invisible Condom® which will hopefully protect women against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and possibly cancer of the cervix. IDRC researchers have in fact set the pace for technology transfer, the identification of new therapeutic targets, as well as the development of new diagnostic tests and vaccines.

“The productivity of the IDRC is remarkable,” says Dr. Bergeron. "I couldn’t be more proud of the tremendously varied and talented people that make it all possible.”

Despite a full schedule, Dr. Bergeron has always made time to get young people excited about science. Since 1998, he and other researchers at IDRC have conducted weekly Researcher for a Day sessions that have given more than 1,800 high school students a peek into laboratory
life. In 2009, the IDRC won CIHR’s Synapse Mentorship Award for its exceptional contributions to promoting health research among secondary school students.

“I wanted us to make a small contribution to the future by getting young people excited about science,” says Dr. Bergeron.

Dr. Bergeron's scientific discoveries and philanthropic involvements have earned him numerous honours, including the Quebec Wilder-Penfield Award, the Order of Quebec, the Order of Canada, the Canadian Medical Association Medal of Service for his exceptional contribution to the Canadians as a researcher and infectious diseases specialist, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Association of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Disease Canada, among many others. He has also been named a Fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

Infectious Enthusiasm

Looking forward to the horizon of his field, Dr. Bergeron believes that genomic testing will become one of the biggest medical markets the world has ever seen, spawning numerous new sectors, including one for ‘real-time’ diagnoses.

“I think you will see in the next five or ten years a shift to smaller labs using smarter technology,” he suggests.

“My vision is of a near future where anyone can take a sample from a patient, put it in the machine, and read the results immediately,” explains Dr. Bergeron. “This is for me, where the revolution in health care will occur because it will signal a paradigm shift to the real-time management of infectious diseases and patients in general.”

“The discoveries at IDRC and elsewhere will contribute to fighting the world’s greatest cause of mortality currently known to humans – infections.”