The death of Pr Luc Montagnier, a French researcher who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 for the discovery of HIV, inevitably recalls the names of the other scientists involved in this major advance, such as the French Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Chermann… or the American Robert Gallo. A look back at a controversy that pitted France against the United States.
Was the virus responsible for AIDS discovered in 1983 by French researchers Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi or a year later by the American Robert Gallo? The controversy was only closed in 2008 with the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the French alone.
At the very beginning of 1983, a Parisian infection specialist, Willy Rozenbaum, one of the first in France to be interested in AIDS, took a sample from one of his homosexual patients at the Pitié- Salpetriere. This disease keeps many mysteries. But we know that it attacks the lymphocytes. Hence the idea of taking a sample where this type of white blood cell is lodged: in the lymph nodes of the patient’s neck.
Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus or…
The sample arrives on January 3 on the benches of the laboratory of the Pasteur Institute, where Professor Luc Montagnier directs a research unit on particular viruses, retroviruses, some of which cause cancer. “At nightfall (…), I get to work”, says Montagnier in his book “Des viruses et des hommes”. With his partners, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Chermann, he detects a new retrovirus, which they decide to baptize LAV (Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus). In May, Pasteur’s team published an article in the American journal Science. This retrovirus “could be involved in several pathological syndromes, including AIDS”, they write.
The discovery is greeted with “skepticism”, in particular by the American Robert Gallo. This great specialist in retroviruses is known for having isolated HTLV-1, responsible for a type of leukemia in humans. Pasteur’s team is more and more convinced that LAV is responsible for AIDS. Montagnier presented data along these lines in September 1983 to a handful of experts, including Gallo. Few reactions. “For a year, we knew we had the right virus (…) but no one believed us and our publications were refused”remembers Luc Montagnier.
Thunderbolt in the spring of 1984: Gallo submits a series of articles announcing his discovery of a new retrovirus, HTLV-3, presented as the “probable cause” of AIDS. On April 23, Margaret Heckler, the US Secretary of State for Health, made it official during a press conference with the doctor. The same day, Gallo filed a patent application in the United States for an AIDS screening test, based on his discovery. It was quickly granted, whereas a similar request previously filed by the Institut Pasteur after its discovery of LAV had been refused.
Quickly, Gallo and Montagnier estimate that HTLV-3 and LAV are probably the same viruses. The proof of their uniqueness was given in January 1985. The two viruses being identical, the paternity of the discovery of the AIDS virus must be credited to the French and not to the Americans, criticizes the scientific journal New Scientist in February 1985. “Why does the myth that Gallo discovered the AIDS virus persist?” she asks.
France and the United States disputed the paternity of the discovery until 1987, date of a Franco-American agreement, where Gallo and Montagnier were qualified as co-discoverers of the AIDS virus. The real epilogue will only occur in 2008 with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine “for their discovery” of HIV to only the French Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi, and not to Robert Gallo.