Driven by Curiosity: Jules Hoffmann

I ran with a huge smile on my face to yesterday’s keynote speech. This would be my first ESOF event and no better start than a talk by a recently crowned Nobel Laureate! As I shot up what seemed to be a million escalators, I finally went through the doors of the auditorium and it was packed. The scale of this event hit me as the large crowd eagerly awaited Prof. Jules Hoffmann. This was an audience full of the world’s top scientists, policy makers and science communicators… and lots of science enthusiasts.

Prof. Luke O’Neill introduced the keynote speaker as a “fundamental biologist working on the fruit fly” remarking how the species he studied weren’t quite as fascinating (the ole Homo sapiens). The spirit of the occasion was summed up by O’ Neill, one of our most eminent scientists, stating, “All of my work was inspired by Jules Hoffmann”.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Prof. Hoffmann’s keynote speech but as he began talking about his research I felt like I was back in college in a lecture on innate biology. We often had lectures about the work behind major discoveries in science. This enabled us to comprehend the years of research behind what we were learning. Today’s lecture was on the activation of innate immunity but the speaker happened to be the scientist behind this ground-breaking research.

Hoffman’s address encompassed the journey of many scientists of his era. Moving from working with grasshoppers to blow flies to the model organism Drosophila, from working alone to being part of a community. Drosophila (fruit fly) has the advantage of a large scientific community working on various aspects of its physiology. This leads to a large amount of genetic and biochemical information being known and shared.

The innate immune system is now known to be shared across all invertebrates and vertebrates. Hoffmann described it as the immediate response to microbial attack with no memory and common to all organisms. This is opposed to the adaptive immune system which is present only in vertebrates such as ourselves, encompassing lymphocytes (among others) and memory cells which allow for vaccination. One of Hoffmann’s key discoveries involved a receptor, Toll, which he showed to be involved in innate immunity in the fruit fly. Almost identical pathways were found in mice and humans which “was really an enormous surprise to us… from Toll to NFκβ the system is conserved”. In humans Toll receptors are now known to play a role in many aspects of our immune system and if faulty can cause autoimmunity, allergy and inflammation.

Speaking about his personal experience, a statement that really struck me was that he “started [our] research simply driven by curiosity”. No applications, personal statements or lists of networking opportunities were required back in his day. “Our society should continue to support work based purely on curiosity”… I got the impression that he was afraid that pure basic science may be pushed aside in modern society. Inquisitiveness led Hoffmann on this extraordinary 50 year journey and led to a greater understanding of the immune system and disease. Surely an argument to add to your next funding application?

The end of this address focused on collaboration between institutions and labs across the world. “One of the most efficient moves to harbour collaboration was the creation of the European Research Council”. With funding tight everywhere, collaborations can share resources, high-tech equipment and access to knowledge. He finished with some advise for young scientists stating that the perspectives of finding a job with a scientific background have improved greatly. In a time in human history with such great potential for new discoveries, Hoffmann said “I envy the young people of today”. On that positive note… the first day of this wonderful festival of science drew to a close.

3 thoughts on “Driven by Curiosity: Jules Hoffmann

  1. Totally off-topic comment here, but your mobile site is absolutely brilliant! Keep up the good work and enjoy the rest of ESOF

  2. Hi Maria, you’ve really captured his presentation, his genial personality and his optimism. I was there too. Such a privilege to have Jules Hoffmann and others like him here in Dublin.

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