A beluga health detective

Professor Michel Fournier has an unusual academic background for a whale researcher: he completed a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology at the Université du Québec à Montréal in 1976, a master’s in micro-immunology at the Université de Montréal and Institut Armand-Frappier some two years later, and a Ph.D. in experimental medicine at McGill University and Institut Armand-Frappier. From 1980 to 1998, Michel Fournier was professor of environmental immunotoxicology at UQAM’s (Université du Québec à Montréal) department of biological sciences and participated in the creation of the research laboratory in environmental toxicology (TOXEN). Since 1998 he has been professor at INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in immunotechnology. It is said that Michel Fournier is recognized on the national and international scientific scenes; he was Canadian head of the International Joint Commission’s Workgroup on Ecosystem Health (Canada and US). He steers the Centre Interinstitutionnel de Recherche en Écotoxicologie du Québec (interinstitutional research centre in ecotoxicology), which encompasses a little more than 100 researchers and managers from over 30 different university and government institutions.

Michel Fournier is essentially interested in the effects of different substances on the immune system. For example, he developed a project with the objective of studying the impact of pesticides on the immune system and the resistance mechanisms of an animal. He is also interested in other substances such as insecticides, herbicides and heavy metals.

The long-term research programs on the St. Lawrence belugas have taught us that they are highly contaminated and suffering from numerous diseases and forms of cancer. According to Michel Fournier, it is quite plausible that these animals are suffering serious harm to their immune capabilities, making them more prone to infections and cancer. They therefore represent an excellent model to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between pollution exposure, immune deficiency and heightened susceptibility to infections and cancer. Such a model would also allow correlations to be established between immune deficiency at the individual level and the consequences for the survival of a population.

The unique character alone of this animal population justifies the research efforts being made on this species and the need for data to ensure its survival.