Hoffmann's Nobel input 'distant' from bench work

Researcher queries extent of professor's contribution to prizewinning immunity study. Paul Jump writes

December 15, 2011

Credit: Getty
Team leader: a fellow biologist has called Jules Hoffmann 'a canny politician'

A former postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of the French immunologist Jules Hoffmann has questioned the extent of his contribution to the research that won him this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Professor Hoffmann, an emeritus distinguished class research director with the French National Research Agency (CNRS) in Strasbourg, shared half of this year's prize with US immunologist Bruce Beutler for "discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity".

But Bruno Lemaitre, who is now a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, has created a website claiming that as a postdoc in Professor Hoffmann's lab in the early 1990s, he was largely responsible for the prizewinning research, which examined fruit flies' innate immunity to fungal infections and later led to the discovery of similar mechanisms important for mammalian immunity.

On the website, a link to which has been sent to numerous academic colleagues, Professor Lemaitre claims that Professor Hoffmann, a former president of the French National Academy of Sciences, was "not very supportive" of his genetics-based approach because he did not grasp its potential significance.

He says Professor Hoffmann had been "far from the realities" of the bench work and his contribution had been limited to discussing results and helping to write later drafts of the 1996 Cell paper to which the project gave rise.

But he says that during subsequent presentations at academic conferences, Professor Hoffmann presented the research as a "team" discovery.

"He has never been able to fully recognize my contribution," Professor Lemaitre says, arguing that Professor Hoffmann has reaped the rewards of that contribution.

Professor Lemaitre calls his own work "not spectacular in itself: just a good piece of genetics".

He acknowledged to Times Higher Education that there were other scientists in the field who could have been given the prize and he was sorry that the Nobel committee had chosen "the two most pushy".

Kathryn Anderson, chair of the developmental biology programme at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, said there was consensus in the field that "a number of other people had made contributions...that were at least as important" as Professor Hoffmann's.

She described Professor Hoffmann as "a canny politician".

Professor Lemaitre's account of his own contribution was also endorsed by Michael Levine, professor of genetics, genomics and development at the University of California, Berkeley, and Pat Simpson, professor of comparative embryology at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Simpson, who also worked in Strasbourg at the time, agreed that Professor Hoffmann "was more of an administrator and communicator than a bench scientist.

"While he deserves credit for administering the unit, he should have highlighted Bruno's role in the research, as well as that of others, more equitably and forcefully," she said.

Professor Hoffmann did not respond to THE's request for comment.


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