For over 40 years, Bernard Jégou, a human reproduction specialist, has been carrying out incredibly outward-looking research, consistently aimed at serving the public interest. This humanitarian approach was praised by the French National Academy of Medicine, which awarded the researcher the Jacques Salat-Baroux prize.
"I may not have talked about it much, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t delighted to receive this prize”, admits Bernard Jégou. “Especially since Jacques Salat-Baroux, who was a pioneering gynecologist in the field of assisted reproductive technology, was himself a great humanitarian.” This same philosophy has guided the Breton researcher throughout his long and somewhat unusual career. Born into a family of modest means, he grew up with his two brothers in a working-class district north of Saint-Brieuc. His mother worked in a factory and as a cleaner, then as a nursing auxiliary, while his father, originally a farm worker, joined the Resistance early on in the war and was deported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. "Our parents brought us up to value social justice and humanitarian commitment”, he explains. “In addition, we have a strong attachment to our roots. But ‘our’ Brittany is open to the rest of the world – with economic hardship having led to high levels of immigration –, the rejection of communitarianism and obscurantism."
Thus, at the age of 18, he spent his holidays hitch-hiking around the globe, driven by a passion for the discovery of new cultures and scuba diving. However, academically, "I had real problems at school for a long time", he says regretfully. After secondary school, he took a vocational path, studying for a technical certificate, before obtaining a place at the IUT (university technology institute) in Caen on its two-year course in laboratory and biochemical analyses. What prompted this choice? "I wanted to wear a white coat!", he laughs. The decision paid off. He returned to education, studying at Poitiers University, before joining Inra (French National Institute for Agricultural Research) in Nouzilly where "my research on whole animal physiology - in this case sheep - brought me closer to my father’s work", he recalls. At the same time, he had enrolled at the Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University in Paris. There, he met Charles Thibault, from whom he caught the reproductive physiology bug. "He was a great teacher, and someone I really admired in his role as first President of the CNRS", emphasizes the researcher. After obtaining his doctorate in reproductive biology in 1976, he joined the lab run by Étienne-Émile Baulieu, “a former Resistance member and fascinating scientific personality, who went on to become a close friend”, he explains.
So the struggling student had become a brilliant researcher, but the globetrotter remained. He therefore seized the opportunity to join David de Kretser’s team at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, where he could combine his passions for biology and scuba diving. The two scientists were the first to demonstrate that germ cells* have an influence on the function of Sertoli cells, nurse cells that control the production of sperm, or spermatogenesis. Then yet another opportunity opened up new horizons for him. He continued his research in Norway; in Vidar Hansson’s lab at Rikshospitalet in Oslo, until he was contacted by the University of Rennes 1.
He taught there for seven years, thumbing his nose at his tricky academic start, and, using US and Inserm grants, put together his own reproductive biology team working on rats and sharks. However, keen to have greater research autonomy, he joined Inserm in 1988. From that point on, his research has consistently served the general interest, following the example of one of his mentors, Georges David, who founded the Centres d’étude et de conservation des œufs et du sperme (Cecos - Center for the study and storage of eggs and sperm). "In 1973, in contrast with sometimes clandestine and often highly lucrative practices, this physician convinced Simone Weil to include assisted reproductive technology within public hospital services", he recalls with admiration.
At Inserm, his team diversified, with, in particular, research in rats showing that cancer treatments affect the spermatogenesis and sperm quality of their descendants. In addition, from the start of the 1990s, he began to look at the harmful effects of endocrine disruptors on male reproduction. Over the years, his research at Rennes has continued to focus on the study of normal and impaired spermatogenesis. However, his sense of public service has also led him to get involved in various Inserm bodies. He chaired the Scientific Advisory Board for five years, and also launched the Institut de recherche en santé, environnement et travail (Irset - Institute for Environmental and Occupational Health), in Rennes in 2012. The facility, which he manages, employs around 300 people. Its purpose is to clarify how the environment influences our health, a mission that requires a unique variety of disciplines – medicine, biology, genomics, epigenetics, chemistry, toxicology, epidemiology, human and social sciences –, to the delight of this researcher who is always keen to embrace new experiences.
Hence, in the same spirit, since 2014, he has also been Research Director at the École des hautes études en santé publique (EHESP - School of Public Health), which fulfills a dual training and research role in the field of public health and social actions. However, “although I recently warned consumers about the risks associated with taking ibuprofen during pregnancy, I am convinced that everyone should stay within their remit. The researcher passes on his knowledge while remaining totally independent. It’s then up to citizens, agencies and politicians to decide what they want to do with the information", he stresses.
And we can take him at his word because, despite his managerial roles, his natural curiosity ensures he remains a researcher at heart. For example, fascinated by archeology and anthropology, his latest research, alongside his colleagues at Irset, Frédéric Chalmel and Antoine Rolland, aims to understand how the descendants of Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens were not sterile. "For me, these paleogenomic discoveries constitute a form of apotheosis!", he confirms. And what about his own descendants? “I have two daughters, one a primary school head and the other a dentist. I’m always amazed to see how they continue to work so hard at their jobs, despite having their own children, these little frogs that are so attached to them and demand all their attention”, he says fondly. It is obvious that the family is central to him and although his daughters have not followed him into research, there’s still hope. "I’m starting to teach my four grandchildren, aged between 3 and 8 years, about archeology on the Côtes-d’Armor coast: they love looking for pieces of ceramic and flints", he enthuses.
Find out more about Bernard Jégou
Bernard Jégou directs the Institut de recherche en santé, environnement et travail (Irset, Inserm unit 1085/EHESP/University of the French West Indies and Guiana – University of Rennes 1), in Rennes.
- 1976 Doctorate in reproductive biology, University of Paris-VI
- 1983 Ph.D. from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia
- 1985 Doctorate in natural sciences, University of Rennes 1
- Since 1988 Inserm Research Director
- 2008 – 2012 Chairman of Inserm’s Scientific Advisory Board
- Since 2012 Director of Irset
- Since 2014 EHESP Research Director