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Fathers inspired Nobel winners’ work

Published on 03/10/2011

A love of nature combined with inspiration from their fathers helped drive the careers of two scientists who were awarded the Nobel Prize on Monday for their work on the immune system.

American Bruce Beutler and Luxembourg-born French national Jules Hoffman shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday, along with fellow co-winner Ralph Steinman, a Canadian native who died days earlier of pancreatic cancer.

The trio was hailed for work that “opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases,” said the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm.

Hoffman, 70, recalled looking up to his father, who came from a farming family and worked as a high school life sciences teacher while fostering a growing bug collection on the side.

“All his life, he spent his free time collecting and identifying insects and he conveyed his passion for this exceptionally diverse and important group of animals to me during our numerous field studies,” Hoffman wrote in a bio he sent to AFP.

As a teenager, Hoffman said he struggled for direction, but “finally I decided to follow the ways of my father and to study biology with the goal of becoming a high school teacher.”

It turned out he would go on much further, taking a lab position with the French National Research Agency where he began studying antimicrobial defenses in grasshoppers.

In the 1990s, as director of the lab, Hoffman pushed for a new direction, studying the innate immunity of the drosophila, often called fruit flies.

In 1996, he found that a certain gene called the Toll had to be activated for the flies to mount a successful defense against bacteria and fungi.

Hoffman, now president of French Academy of Sciences, is married and has two grown children who live in Paris and pursue academic careers.

His American colleague, Beutler, also researched the immune systems of mice and fruit flies, and said he too emulated his father, a physician and scientist who allowed him to work at his lab when he was 14 years old.

“I have wanted to be a scientist since I was probably six or seven years old,” Beutler, 53, told AFP.

His father was “a great teacher for me, really, at every turn. When I was a small child he would answer questions about biology for me just tirelessly,” he said.

Beutler showed an unusual eagerness to learn and skipped several grades in school, graduating from the University of California at San Diego when he was just 18.

His father encouraged him to go to medical school at the University of Chicago, which he called “excellent advice.”

In 1998, he made a major discovery in the receptor for lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which revealed how mammals sense infection, and how certain inflammatory diseases begin.

Beutler and Hoffman shared the 2007 Balzan Prize for Innate Immunity and, last week, the Shaw Prize.

They split one half of the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.48 million) Nobel prize, while the other half goes to the family of Steinman, who died Friday after a four-year battle with cancer.

“I think it is a great tragedy that he didn’t live quite long enough to know that he had won the Nobel Prize,” said Beutler, who knew Steinman for nearly 30 years.

For his part, Beutler said he was “thrilled, of course,” to learn he was a co-winner but “within the first few minutes, I sobered up again and reconsecrated myself to being a scientist.”

“I think getting the Nobel Prize can be very liberating in that way. One has a certain new measure of credibility and this is important in seeking grant support for ideas that might be perceived as risky or difficult,” he added.

“But that is the kind of work I love to do, so I am going to keep doing it better than before.”

Beutler, who chairs the department of genetics at The Scripps Research Institute in California, has three grown sons.

None of them took up science as a profession but they are interested in the topic, often leading to what their father called “animated discussion.”

“They witnessed much of my career in science, and saw first hand the commitment, rewards and traumas that science entails: relentless work punctuated sometimes by joyful enlightenment, and sometimes by frustration,” he said.