Stanford sleep medicine professor Emmanuel Mignot won the 2023 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in September for discovering the cause of narcolepsy, a chronic disorder that disrupts sleep-wake patterns and causes sudden attacks of sleep and exhaustion.
Founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg, Anne Wojcicki, and Julia and Yuri Milner, the Breakthrough Prize awards researchers for scientific discoveries in the fields of life sciences, physics and mathematics. Mignot shares the award with Masashi Yanagisawa, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“Through research in narcolepsy, I’ve been able to take care of people and find enjoyment in science at the same time,” Mignot told The Daily. “In the future, I want to continue making discoveries that make a difference for other people, and at the same time, have fun.”
Starting in 1989, Mignot began isolating and cloning a gene mutation causing narcolepsy in dogs. Mignot found that the gene controlled a receptor for orexin, which is a neurotransmitter promoting awakeness and blocking REM sleep. Years later, he would uncover that narcolepsy was caused by the immune-mediated destruction of orexin in the brain, bringing light to a disease affecting roughly one in 2,000 people.
Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine, wrote in a press release that “Through his brilliant work, Dr. Mignot forever changed the field of sleep medicine and, in doing so, opened the door for more discoveries across a variety of neurodegenerative diseases.”
Mignot first got the opportunity to study narcolepsy towards the end of his M.D.-Ph.D. program, when he had to fulfill mandatory military training for his home country, France. Prior to this, Mignot said he was trained as a pharmacologist and a psychiatrist but he found it difficult to make a significant impact on neuropsychiatric illnesses from his position.
He convinced the French government to send him to Stanford for his military service abroad to study modafinil, a drug for narcolepsy, in the lab of William Dement, who is widely regarded as the father of sleep medicine. It was at Stanford that Mignot fell in love with research and sleep medicine.
“We didn’t know anything about narcolepsy, we didn’t know anything about sleep — there are a lot of people suffering from this problem. I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Mignot said.
He resigned from his job in France to start a career in research. “It was a bit crazy of me,” he said. “I already had a job for life – it’s a bit like [quitting] if I was tenured.”
Mignot’s decision paved the way for our current understanding of narcolepsy and much of sleep medicine. To this day, he remains passionate and involved in clinical trials for narcolepsy and other sleep diseases. Moving forward, Mignot is interested in autoimmune diseases affecting the brain, as well as other aspects of sleep science, such as finding biomarkers for the body’s circadian rhythms.
Selina Yogeshwar, a visiting student researcher working under Mignot, called his lab a “true bench-to-bedside research lab,” praising Mignot’s dedication to the full research process beginning from ideation to widespread clinical trials.
“The autoimmune hypothesis of narcolepsy, which he significantly shaped as early as the 1980s, is a continued focus of the lab,” Yogeshwar said. “With state-of-the-art technologies at hand, he has been able to address several longstanding questions in the field.”
Yogeshwar said Mignot made clear his priority is to “ask questions that matter and produce answers that impact people’s lives.”
“It is a rare privilege to work for an expert in his field who still takes the time and attentiveness to work directly with you,” Yogeshwar said. “We often sit in his office hours on end, discussing hypotheses or running an analysis together.”
Mignot continues to find unbridled excitement in the process of discovery. He said he most enjoys uncovering knowledge that explains and brings new light to historical data.
“Some people like to accumulate lots of knowledge,” he said. “I like knowledge that simplifies things.”