Vale Prof Hugues Driguez

Born in Algiers, Hugues Driguez studied at the University of Marseilles. After obtaining a doctorate in 1969 on the reactivity of alkynyl magnesium halides, he decided to complete his formation at the University of Sherbrooke, Canada, under the guidance of Professor Jean Lessard. He received a PhD in 1971 on the addition of N-haloamides to olefins, including glycals. The latter subject raised his interest for carbohydrate chemistry and he next moved to the laboratory of Professor Raymond Lemieux at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. In the laboratory of this grand master of carbohydrate chemistry and immunology, Hugues pioneered the synthesis of branched oligosaccharides and reported the first two syntheses of the antigen trisaccharide determinants of Lewis A and B blood groups in a couple of back-to-back landmark papers published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. 

Hugues returned to France in January 1974 and after visiting the CERMAV laboratory then directed by Professor Didier Gagnaire, Hugues was recruited the same year by CNRS and joined the team of Dr. Jacques Defaye. Hugues has remained in the CERMAV laboratory until the end of his career.  

In 1976, Hugues received a D.Sc. degree based on his work in Edmonton together with his first results obtained on trehalose analogs. Professor Lemieux was the president of the defence jury. At the same time, Hugues started to become interested in the synthesis of thiosugars, and in particular of 1,2-cis oligosaccharides with an inter-glycosidic sulfur atom. 

After developing an original method for the synthesis 4-thiooligosaccharides and having shown their usefulness to study the enzymatic breakdown of polysaccharides, Hugues started to invest deeply in the biosynthesis, biodegradation and biomodification of oligo- and polysaccharides. He was a pioneer in the utilization of transglycosidases and glycoside hydrolases for the custom synthesis of selective substrates for monitoring glycosidase activities. In the 90’s, a large number of thio-oligosaccharides obtained in his laboratory have shed light on the recognition and catalytic mechanism of hydrolases of medical or biotechnological use, including amylases, cellulases and glycogen phosphorylases, a work he conducted in collaboration with biochemists and protein crystallographers. He also worked on the characterization of myrosinase, the only known enzyme to degrade a natural thioglycoside. 

At the turn of the century, Hugues conceived and synthesized non-natural oligosaccharides of increasing complexity by the utilization of glycosynthases to further refine our understanding of the interactions between proteins and carbohydrates. The culmination of Hugues’ career was probably his contribution to the elaboration of oligosaccharide-producing cell factories that opened the door to the industrial production of complex carbohydrates, in particular with the Danish biotech company Novozymes for the commercialization of molecules that favor nitrogen symbiosis in leguminous plants. 

On several occasions, Hugues travelled abroad to seed novel collaborations.  He thus spent a year at the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada, in Pointe-Claire, Canada, with Dr. Lubo Jurasek with whom he succeeded cloning of a xylanase gene as early as 1983. Hugues also travelled several times to Australia where he entertained several collaborations, including with Professor Geoff Fincher of the University of Adelaide, who decided to spend a year in CERMAV in 2001. 

Hugues has supervised many PhD students and is the author of 166 publications and 8 patents and gave multiple conferences at scientific symposia. He was nominated CNRS Director of Research in 1986 and became Head of the team “Chemical and Enzymatic Syntheses” later renamed “Chemistry and Biotechnology of Oligosaccharides” in 1989. He remained Head of the team until the end of 2007, when he became Emeritus for five years before retiring. On September 11, 2013 CERMAV organized a scientific meeting in honor of Hugues, where his past coworkers, students and friends gathered to celebrate his achievements. 

In spite of writing several of the most important pages of glycochemistry, Hugues remained an extraordinarily modest pioneer. He was an avant-garde researcher, discreet and in love with science as he was with good things. Hugues has been the mentor of several generations of chemists and biochemists who remember his patience, his humor and his always benevolent and friendly welcome at his home, alongside his wife Denise and their son Pierre-Alexandre.