October 5, 2011

FRANCE: 2011 Nobel Prize winner says: 'I thought it was a joke'

SHANGHAI, China / The Shanghai Daily / Science / October 5, 2011

IN Shanghai yesterday, Jules Hoffmann, one of the three scientists who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for Medicine, said he thought at first it was a joke when he was told he had won the award.

The scientist was on a visit to the city when he was told of the Nobel Committee's decision by a Chinese friend and fellow researcher on Monday night.

"I was enjoying the firework shows at Century Park in Pudong with my wife when my Chinese friend, Professor Cao Meixun, told me about the Nobel Prize," Hoffmann told Shanghai Daily. "I then thought it was a joke, just a mistake, and I couldn't believe it."

The award meant that the Luxembourg-born French national had to cut short his trip to China and he flew back to France last night. A lecture he planned to give at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences on Saturday was canceled. But he promised he would return and said he was hoping for more collaboration with Chinese scientists.

Jules Hoffmann, one of the three scientists to share the 2011 Nobel Prize for medicine, and his wife Daniele pose for photographs at the Ruijin Hotel in Shanghai yesterday. The Nobel laureate was traveling in China and he learned of his award while watching a fireworks display in Shanghai on Monday night. Photo by Zhang Suoqing

"I am already impressed by the increase of research in quality and quantity in China," he said. "I see it as a positive trend."

Hoffmann first visited China in 1980 to carry out insect research at a Shanghai institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He has since visited the city half a dozen times. One of the Chinese researchers he has worked with is Professor Cao and the two have remained firm friends.

Hoffmann said his decades of research into the immunity of insects could enable scientists to find a cure for human disorders. He shares the Nobel Prize for medicine with fellow scientists American Bruce Beutler and Canadian Ralph Steinman, who died last week. The trio's work "opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases," the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm said. Their research helps open the door to new drugs and tackling human immune disorders, in which the body attacks itself, it said.

Hoffmann has won a number of awards this year, including Hong Kong's Shaw Prize, also shared with Beutler and Ruslan Medzhitov, Canada's Gairdner Award and France's highest scientific decoration - the CNRS Gold Medal, which is awarded by the National Center for Scientific Research.

A modest Hoffmann said that the Nobel Prize, science's ultimate accolade, is in recognition of all the people working in the field of immunology.  He said he hadn't yet thought how he would use his share of the 10 million Swedish kronor (US$1.5 million) he is set to receive.

Hoffmann's links with China are not purely scientific.  He said he has a deep interest in Chinese culture, including Chinese painting and history, and has paid visits to Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, Yunnan Province, Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and the Yellow Mountain.

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