History of the HKU-Pasteur Research Centre (last update 13/02/2001)

The HKU-Pasteur Centre
Dexter HC Man building
The Institut Pasteur
Scientific Information Centre

The Institut Pasteur has long had important collaborations with Asia, beside those which still exist in Viet Nam and in Cambodia. In 1996, Mr Bernard Esambert, former chairman of the Board of Directors of the Institut Pasteur de Paris, discussed with Mr James Kung, chairman of the First Chekiang Bank. The latter told him he was keen to support the creation of an Institut Pasteur-related Centre in China (in Hong Kong as a first step). In 1997, the General Consulate of France in Hong Kong materialized this initiative by organising a meeting between Pr Maxime Schwartz, former director of the Institut Pasteur, and the University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor. The latter offered to host and support this initiative, if it were made concrete. The final agreement was signed by Pr Philippe Kourilsky, his successor. Through this collaboration with the University of Hong Kong, the Institut Pasteur revives its historical links with China, which happened to be one of the most important place for the discovery of emerging diseases.

Owing to the participation of France in the military occupation of China, the presence of French medicine was significant in China at the beginning of the XXth century, at a time when the idea to spread the concepts of Pasteur's vision was at its peak. As early as 1906, two projects for the creation of an Institut Pasteur in China were elaborated. A first one proposed Peking as the site for the creation, while the second one chose Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. After much difficulties, Docteur Aimé-François Legendre created an Institut Pasteur in that latter location in 1911. Its activity started with the arrival of its first director, Dr Jouveau-Dubreuil, and this Institute was active, despite the difficult political and military situation there, till 1927. Most of the work there consisted in preparing vaccine against small pox, with some 400,000 doses annualy, and a very high percentage of success. Some equipment was also sent to Peking, but this did not result in the creation of an institute there, despite the onset of a terrible pulmonary plague epidemy, which reached Peking in 1911.

Endemic in China, plague exploded from time to time into deadly epidemics. It is indeed in 1894 that Alexandre Yersin, sent to South Eastern China, where a terrible epidemy of the Black Death plague was spreading, discovered the pathogen. He arrived on June 15th, 1894 in Hong Kong and seven days later he isolated the plague bacillus, now named after his name Yersinia pestis. In the '40ies (from 1938 to 1950) a Pasteur Institute was created in Shanghai

This Institute, devoted to programmes in vaccination research and vaccine production (vaccination against rabies and tuberculosis, ...), participated in vaccination campaigns against cholera (for more information write to the Pasteur Museum). Collaborative efforts involving scientists from the Institut Pasteur de Paris and scientists from China are still actively ongoing today.

A. Microbiology Unit : investigation using a microscope
B. The building hosting the Institut Pasteur in Shanghai in march 1947
C. Microbiology Unit : streaking bacteria on Petri dishes

An agreement between The University of Hong Kong and the Pasteur Institute was signed on October 16th, 1999 for the creation of the HKU-Pasteur Research Centre, a charitable organisation limited by guarantee with Hong Kong tax exempt status, controlled by a Board of Directors, chaired by Dr James Kung. The Centre was incorporated in November 17th, 1999 and the operations of the Centre began from the time of the arrival in Hong Kong of Dr MF Saron in the end of february, 2000, with the help of Pr KY Yuen from the Faculty of Medicine, co-director of the Centre. Since this date, the first recruitments of technicians and secretarial help have been performed and the first scientists involved in the scientific programme of the Centre (Pr A. Danchin and Dr A. Sekowska) arrived in Hong Kong mid-April 2000, just after the International Conference on Genomes, Genome 2000, held at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France. A first workshop on emerging diseases caused by fungi was held, with scientists coming from the Institut Pasteur in France (Pr B. Dujon, former chairman of the Institut Pasteur Scientific Council, and Dr JP Latgé, head of the Aspergillus Research Unit) and scientists from the Department of Microbiology of the Faculty of Medicine. In addition, a regular weekly laboratory seminar was initiated (monday morning), as well as an open seminar on history of sciences (thursday, end of the afternoon, E-mail contact: A. Danchin). A collaboration with the international data bank SwissProt will allow incorporation of data extracted from the chinese scientific literature in genome annotation. The Centre was officially inaugurated on October 24th, 2000.

Speeches of the signing ceremony for the creation of the Centre

The opening of the Centre, October 24th, 2000

More about Louis Pasteur and the creation of the Pasteur Institute

A private, non profit-making organization, the Pasteur Institute was founded in 1887 by Louis Pasteur, former Director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the French scientist whose early experiments with fermentation led to pioneering research in bacteriology. A giant in science, Pasteur discovered the principle of sterilization which came to be known as "pasteurization."

His discoveries led to the universal practice of surgical asepsis. He also developed techniques of vaccination to control bacterial infection, as well as a successful vaccine to treat rabies.
Louis Pasteur was committed both to basic research and to its practical applications. His successors have sustained this tradition, and it is reflected in the Pasteur Institute's unique history of accomplishment. During Pasteur's lifetime, his colleagues Émile Roux and Alexandre Yersin discovered how to treat diphtheria with antitoxins; Elie Metchnikoff received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for contributions to scientific understanding of the immune system and Jules Bordet received the prize in 1919 for his discoveries on immunity. Charles Nicolle received it in 1928 for unraveling the mystery of how typhus is transmitted.

A new age of preventive medicine in France was made possible by developments from the Pasteur Institute such as vaccines for tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, poliomyelitis, and hepatitis B. The discovery and use of sulfonamides in treating infections was another breakthrough.

Since World War II, Pasteur scientists have sharply focused on molecular biology. Their achievements were recognized in 1965, when the Nobel Prize was shared between François Jacob, Jacques Monod and André Lwoff for their work on the regulation of bacterial gene expression and in the life cycle of bacterial viruses.

Today, the Pasteur Institute is one of the world's leading research centers. It houses more than 110 research units and close to 2,700 people from 70 countries, as well as 1,000 students and postdoctoral trainees from 60 nationalities. The Institute is also a global network of 20 foreign institutes devoted to medical problems in developing nations; nineteen National Reference Centers for pathogenic microorganisms,ten Collaborating Centers of the World Health Organisation, a graduate study center and an epidemiological screening unit are also present in the Institute, which now harbors an Incubation Centre for start up companies in biotechnology.

The life and works of Louis Pasteur have been commented recently by our former Director, Maxime Schwartz.