Speech of Jean-François Mattéi,9th November 2004 during the first international Jérôme Lejeune Days


Jean-François Mattei giving the 1st prize of the Jérôme Lejeune Award

Speech of Jean-François Mattéi, former minister of health, 9th November 2004

for the 1st prize of the Jérôme Lejeune Award ceremony

Jérôme Lejeune during the first international Jérôme Lejeune Days

My emotion and my gratitude.

My gratitude, first of all, because one does not always have the chance of talking about the admiration and gratitude one has for a master to whom one owes so much. Emotion as well because this ceremony leads us to assuming both our fidelity to the past and our faith in the future.

First, fidelity to the past: it is a source of pride for me to have been Jerôme Lejeune’s student. The trainee from Marseille I was back then, was given by Francis Giraud the mission of organizing and developing medical genetics in Marseille. “You will go off and learn about chromosomes at Lejeune’s” was his word of advice and naturally it seemed to make perfect sense.

I therefore followed the lessons given at the Institut de Progenèse from 1971 and 1972. I was incredibly lucky because I was discovering chromosomes during that magical period when they started to be differentiated, each one being given its own specific marking.  They no longer were these little grey sticks one classifies by size and by the position of their strangulation.

Thus over the weeks I discovered with his team the world of pathology and the so particular perception they had of children living with Down Syndrome. When I left, we kept in touch. First, because my own wife, Marie-Geneviève Mattei, also benefitted, a few years later, from this teaching necessary to anyone wanting to dedicate their life to diagnosis and research on chromosomal anomalies. But also because once a year I went to him to talk about the questions I had and the evolution of genetics. Two issues haunted him: actually, they were related to each other. The first one, quite obvious, came from the fact that he noticed that the main disability from which people with disabilities suffered was mental disability.

An attempt made by a doctor. To be able to understand and cure it, he dedicated his time to personal work on the mechanisms of intelligence. The sole title of this research then seemed completely unrealistic not to say frankly unreasonable.

One day, during one of my visits, I found him partly hidden behind a heap of coloured pieces that looked like a big game of Lego. His desk was full of all these representations of adenine, thymine, guanine, cytosine that could be attached to each other in order to form molecules.

He turned to me with a smile and a look I could never forget. He explained. The structure of Acetyl Choline, of other mediators or even synapses. Already, he was trying to express the inner vision he had and that he wanted to demonstrate. Because Jérôme Lejeune was a visionary.  Unfortunately, this part of his life was not always understood by his peers.

The second issue he was obsessed with was as obvious as the first. But painful. With the arrival and the trivialization of prenatal diagnostic, he had well sensed that a race had started. On the one side, the elimination of unborn children with Down Syndrome. On the other, research opening the way to therapeutics. He wanted to avoid the first solution to be imposed because it was easier. With much energy he opposed this simplification and did everything he could to unlock the mysteries of intelligence and justify the therapeutic approach.

This fidelity to the past is what I wanted to go over.

 But I also wanted to speak about faith in the future.

I am convinced that the issue is still the same today. Man never gets greater by accepting to take the easy way and the vocation of medicine remains, first of all, to cure people.

These convictions were well anchored in Jérôme Lejeune’s soul. That is why it is important for us to keep the same faith he had, even when everything seemed to be shifting under his feet, and carry on testifying through action. This is the task taken on by the Jérôme Lejeune Institution and approved by the ministry of Health and which I am glad to have been able to support.

It is also today, thanks to this wonderful meeting, that a first message is being delivered on genetic intellectual diseases, from molecular biology to treatment, on the richness of communications. The qualities of the people involved are a source of renewed trust. We must trust man, we must keep our faith in man.

As indicated by the president of these days in his words of welcome, the International Scientific Jérôme Lejeune Award is to be handed out at the end of the event. A 30 000 euro prize; it is meant to reward a scientist who will have contributed to the progress in the comprehension and the treatment of genetic intellectual diseases. And I am the one who gets the privilege of handing it out.

Thus, this prize will be rewarding a renowned scientist who recently published some fine work on the chromosome 21 and Down Syndrome, from genome to physiotherapy.

His work is being published both nationally and internationally. This clearly demonstrates the rightness of the hypothesis and stresses how this theme of research is promising. We now have the necessary basis for the molecular analysis of Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is a model that enables to study the disorders that occur in genetic expression.

But in a couple of minutes this researcher will explain all this better than I would and he has already done so by chairing these days. Indeed, the International Scientific Jérôme Lejeune Award is being given to professor Stylianos Antonakaris. And I will very gladly hand it over to him, on behalf of all you, once Michel Vekemans has explained the reasons of the choice of the jury.