Today it was announced that Institut Pasteur virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was one of three winners of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Barré-Sinoussi and her Institut Pasteur colleague Luc Montagnier were the first to characterize and isolate the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The award announcement details their achievement:
Following medical reports of a novel immunodeficiency syndrome in 1981, the search for a causative agent was on. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier isolated and cultured lymph node cells from patients that had swollen lymph nodes characteristic of the early stage of acquired immune deficiency. They detected activity of the retroviral enzyme reverse transcriptase, a direct sign of retrovirus replication. They also found retroviral particles budding from the infected cells. Isolated virus infected and killed lymphocytes from both diseased and healthy donors, and reacted with antibodies from infected patients. In contrast to previously characterized human oncogenic retroviruses, the novel retrovirus they had discovered, now known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), did not induce uncontrolled cell growth. Instead, the virus required cell activation for replication and mediated cell fusion of T lymphocytes. This partly explained how HIV impairs the immune system since the T cells are essential for immune defence. By 1984, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier had obtained several isolates of the novel human retrovirus, which they identified as a lentivirus, from sexually infected individuals, haemophiliacs, mother to infant transmissions and transfused patients. The significance of their achievements should be viewed in the context of a global ubiquitous epidemic affecting close to 1% of the population.Barré-Sinoussi currently heads research at the Regulation of Retroviral Infections unit (Unité de Régulation des Infections Rétrovirales) and is working towards better understanding how HIV infection is naturally controlled by infected hosts, work that may help lead to the development of a an anti-HIV vaccine. In 2006 Barré-Sinoussi was elected to the WITI Hall of Fame, and spoke about her work on HIV. Watch the video.
Many of you may recall that there was a bitter dispute in the late 1980s over who had first isolated HIV: the French group at Institut Pasteur or Robert Gallo's research group at the National Cancer Institute. The "official" negotiated settlement was that both research teams had equal priority claims to the discovery and isolation of the virus, but clearly the Nobel Prize committee decided that the French scientists made a more significant contribution to the study of HIV. You can read more about the details of the controversy:
- Rawling A. "Montagnier, Gallo or both? On who the scientific community believes discovered HIV", New Scientist, 22 September 1990
- Crewdson J. "Report: Science subverted in AIDS dispute", Chicago Tribune 1 Jan 1995 (republished 6 October 2008)