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People of the
Year Extended: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi 

People of the
Year Extended: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi 


On October 6, the Nobel committee awarded half of the 2008 prize in medicine to two French virologists, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, for their discovery of HIV in 1983. talked with Barre-Sinoussi about the fight for credit for discovering the virus, a slowdown in practicing prevention, and her main research focus today.

On October 6, the Nobel committee awarded half of the 2008 prize in medicine to two French virologists -- Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, 61, and Luc Montagnier, 76 -- for their discovery of HIV in 1983. Their work spurred the development of blood tests to identify HIV infection and the subsequent creation of antiretrovirals, which have prolonged hundreds of thousands of lives. talked with Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, who continues to conduct research at France's prestigious Institut Pasteur, about the Nobel Prize, the current state of HIV/AIDS research, and her work in developing countries. do you feel about receiving the 2008 Nobel Prize in medicine?Francoise Barre-Sinoussi: For me, as a researcher, it's obviously a prestigious decoration. But through Luc Montagnier and myself, this prize belongs to the entire community of people who have been working on eradicating HIV/AIDS. Of course, that includes the researchers and the doctors, but not only: The award also belongs to the people who live with HIV/AIDS and who have helped tremendously. It's a prize for all the people who have been fighting against the virus.

Does it finally put an end to the debate over who really discovered the virus? (The American researcher Robert Gallo has claimed to be the original discoverer.) For me, this debate is over since 1987 (when then-president Ronald Reagan and then-prime minister Jacques Chirac of France signed an agreement to share royalties and credit for the discovery). The debate is now over and my relation with Mr. Gallo has been very cordial.

How did your interest for developing countries and the way they deal with the issue of HIV/AIDS develop? It actually started very early, in 1985, when Luc Montagnier asked me to replace him at a meeting of the World Health Organization in the Central African Republic. That visit was a total discovery to me. The way the HIV/AIDS issue was being dealt with was just dreadful. The health system in general appeared to be bad in terms of infrastructures, drugs, etc. That's when I realized how much we could help there. Later, I also started working with Vietnam and Cambodia.

The way it works is that there is an official collaboration between France and developing countries on the issue of health. I work as a coordinator to try and identify with local people in the developing countries -- doctors, officials, but also associations and people living with the virus -- what the priorities are. Then, we look for the best experts that we have in France, who will meet and discuss with his or her counterpart in the developing country to try and find solutions. We put a strong focus on the follow-up of our actions and on how things are managed in the long run. We offer medical training to make sure that they become autonomous. We also make sure that we get information from everyone -- the local doctors, the overall medical staff, but also local people living with the virus, and local associations. [Barre-Sinoussi does this on a voluntary basis.]

You seem to put a strong focus on associations. Why? The HIV/AIDS virus made me discover the relation with patients. I am a researcher, not a doctor, so it has been very important for me to discover the relation with patients, be in touch with them, see how they react to treatments, how they perceive the advancements of research, etc. They help us a lot in the research.

Will a vaccine ever be discovered? Finding a vaccine remains our priority. The failures of the past have taught us a lot. The list of obstacles we have encountered showed us that we need to explore new possibilities, be more innovative and creative, because we have been too traditional in our approach. We need to understand how the virus manages to construct a sort of "reservoir" in the body, allowing it to persist and remain present in the blood even after strong treatments.

How do you think people perceive the disease today in developed countries? Are they more vigilant? Less vigilant? Why? I feel people are a lot less careful today and have significantly slowed down their work on prevention. This is particularly true of the gay community, sometimes understandably. Gay people were the first individuals to be infected. They have lived with the virus for so many years that I can understand that they are tired of it. But being less careful is extremely dangerous. They have to be careful.

I feel that young people are less careful as well. I think a lot of them believe that HIV/AIDS is now very manageable, that it's somehow not that bad anymore. They just don't realize that the treatments that are available today are, although very efficient, very heavy and that you need to take them for life. They don't think about all the complications that are part of the life of someone living with HIV/AIDS.

What is your main research focus today? The focus of my team is the mechanism that the human body can create to combat the infection. We study the phenomenon through several angles. For example, we study the HIV/AIDS transmission from mother to child. We try to understand why, without any therapeutic intervention, the level to which the disease is transmitted remains low. We try to understand what mechanisms protect the child.

We also study what we call the "HIV controllers." They only represent about 1% of the infected population. Some of them have lived 10 to 15 years with the virus, but have controlled it. They are HIV-positive, but have not developed the symptoms, even though they don't take any treatment. The classical HIV tests cannot even detect the virus in them. We try to understand the mechanisms here too: What is there in their bodies that allows them to fight the disease?

We also study the African green monkey: 40% of them live with a virus that is very close to the HIV/AIDS virus, but they do not develop any symptoms. How is that possible? How do they do it?

Finally, we study the dialogue between the body and the protection it provides against viruses, and how HIV/AIDS has the power to interrupt that dialogue.

There's still a lot to explore. We need to diversify the research and exploit all the options we have.

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