In 1982, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was a young researcher in Luc Montagnier’s lab at the Pasteur Institute, studying the control of retroviruses by their hosts. Late that year, a French virologist made an urgent request to her lab: would they look for signs of retroviral infection in a group of patients with a troubling new disease?
As she says in her 2008 Nobel Prize biographical sketch, “It would have been a relatively routine procedure to detect the presence of a retrovirus” in cells. That statement is excessively modest, because in fact the task was not easy and rested on decades of earlier work. One immediate problem was that the unidentified pathogen, obtained from a patient’s lymph node biopsy, threatened to outrun the cells in culture. But once she thought to add more lymphocytes to keep up with the infection cycle, Barré-Sinoussi wrote that “isolation, amplification and characterisation of the virus rapidly ensued, and the first report was published in Science in May 1983.”
Barré-Sinoussi, co-recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), spoke on June 3 at the annual Jonathan Lax Memorial Lecture here at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Co-sponsored by the Wistar Institute and Philadelphia Fight, the lecture honors the memory and achievements of Lax, a Philadelphian who mobilized HIV activism, research, and treatment in the early days of the HIV epidemic.
Speaking not just as a scientist but also as an advocate and activist, Barré-Sinoussi described advances and challenges on the pathway to an HIV vaccine. She was hopeful, she said, about recent advances in HIV/SIV experimental vaccines in macaques and in the rapid progress achieved in characterizing anti-HIV broadly neutralizing antibodies.
In regard to HIV treatment, Barré-Sinoussi addressed the question of whether it will ever be possible to eradicate HIV from the body once a person has been infected. As daunting as this might be, she said it is important to keep that goal in mind. When she asks people living with HIV what they want, they tell her they want eradication: they will continue to experience significant stress about the future and medication side effects as long as they have to continue taking anti-retroviral drugs.
The recent successes with new hepatitis C treatments have given Barré-Sinoussi hope for the development of new HIV treatments. Moreover, she hopes that the instrumental work that HIV activists did in promoting access to anti-retroviral drugs can provide a lesson for HCV treatment as well: the new hepatitis C drugs are astonishingly expensive and are out of reach for HCV-infected people in developing countries.
It was an honor to hear Dr. Barré-Sinoussi speak about her career and her commitment to ending the HIV epidemic. Many thanks to the Wistar Institute for inviting us to the talk and to the Wistar Institute and Philadelphia Fight for co-hosting the event.