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Blood Transfus. 2010 April; 8(2): 130–131.
PMCID: PMC2851219

Memories of Jean Dausset. A pioneering scientist in medical ethics

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Jean Dausset, the son of a doctor, was born in Toulouse on the 19th October, 1916.

Within the last few years a whole group of great haematologists, geneticists and immunologists has disappeared, including Jean Dausset himself, Jean Bernard, Ruggero Ceppellini, Sergio Curtoni, Charles Salmon, to name just a few.

I was part of Jean Dausset's team and had the honour and pleasure of working with him in the 1950s, when he was director of the Centre National de Transfusion Sanguine in Paris. In 1980, Dausset received, together with Baruj Benacerraf and George Davis Snell, the Nobel Prize for medicine. As Luciano Sterpellone reminds us, "There is a select group of scientists who, with their discoveries and the silent help of a herd of collaborators, have made more progress in medicine in less than a century than in most of the rest of the history of this discipline."

Professor Dausset was awarded this prestigious prize for his fundamental discovery of the HLA system, now defined as the "leucocyte-platelet and tissue system" or the "human major histocompatibility complex".

Marc Fellous, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Paris VII and one of Dausset's pupils, drew a moving portrait of his Master: "He was a simple, modest man, a researcher who stayed in the shadows". Without doubt he was less well known as a pupil and friend of Jean Bernard, with whom Dausset loved discussing the future of science and mankind.

The HLA system plays a key role in immune responses and defences and influences the success of transplants. Furthermore, "the HLA system is also at the basis of the concept of predictive medicine, supported by Dausset in his research on the mechanisms that make each one of us a unique and unrepeatable human being, and on predictive medicine, in the sense of individualised prevention." Predictive medicine is, therefore, more effective medicine than, for example, vaccination, which, although remaining a valid strategy is nevertheless 'mass medicine'.

The HLA system has been found to be a reference system that contains all the information necessary for each cell of the body to be able to recognise itself, but also its neighbouring cells and, in particular, foreign cells not belonging to the body. The major histocompatibility complex occupies a small part on the short arm of chromosome 6, in four points called loci: A, B, C, DR. Each of these loci has a certain number of genes coding for antigens. At first it was thought there were 15 genes at locus A, 20 at B, 6 at C and 11 at DR. With the aid of molecular biology investigations, these numbers have increased exponentially and indeed it seems that hardly a day passes without a new subtype being discovered.

"Dausset's discovery", concluded Sterpellone, "has numerous practical implications; it enables both the donors and recipients of transplants (whether of organs or haematopoietic stem cells) to be typed, it can resolve contentions concerning paternity, and is of use in clarifying important anthropological and evolutionary issues." It is also well-known that specific HLA antigens are strongly associated with certain diseases: for example, HLA B27 with ankylosing spondylitis and HLA DR2 with narcolepsy.

In 1984, Dausset founded MURS (Mouvement Universel pour la Responsabilité Scientifique –Universal Movement for Scientific Responsibility), and remained its President until 2002.

The following year, Professor Dausset had the honour of being received, in Rome, at a private audience held by Pope John Paul II, in recognition of the fact that he was one of the first researchers to have understood the enormous ethical aspects of scientific work, particularly in the field of biomedicine, and the fundamental importance of dialogue between science and society, between scientists and the public.

In his last book, Clin d'Oeil à la Vie (1998), Jean Dausset recalls Jean Bernard's definition of bioethics: "Above all, bioethics has a double connotation: scientific and moral. But it is also, together with these not irrelevant spiritual needs, the warmth of life, the depth of reflection, inspired by love for others." He continued, "The emergence of bioethics and its assimilation into society are signs of the highest human value".

These derive from the extraordinary conceptual and technological success made possible by the fascinating advances in biology and genetics. In brief, the progress in biology in less than a century has been greater than that in thousands of years before.

As knowledge expands, humans will presumably be faced with new situations. Indeed, thinking about it carefully, mankind does not live in present, but in the future. Our thoughts and behaviours are anticipations based on experience or, perhaps, on our hopes.

Genetic tests applied to health (our greatest concern, whatever might be stated or hypothesised) can be viewed with optimism or pessimism. The ethics of predictive medicine, like the ethics of any form of biomedicine, are based on the respect for human beings, who are born with equal dignity and rights.

Jean Dausset's death was announced to the world on 10 June 2009, by a French newspaper, La Croix. There were just a few words written about this respected, excellent and unforgettable scientist and yet mankind owes this man, buried in Spain, heartfelt gratitude.

Articles from Blood Transfusion are provided here courtesy of SIMTI Servizi