Luc Montagnier overcame bureaucracy and scientific rivalries to discover the HIV retrovirus. He tells Stella Hughes of the battles fought
The retrovirus HIV, the cause of the Aids disease in humans, has been described as the most controversial micro-organism of all time. The political and financial implications of who discovered it were so great that the question became a national issue between France and the United States. The stakes were enormous. Scientists chasing the breakthrough were certain the winner would be awarded a Nobel prize and would also get a head start in a promising new subject for research, retroviruses, which was believed to hold applications for cancer treatment.
Asked what was it like to work in one of the most ferociously competitive scientific races this century, Luc Montagnier, the man who was finally acknowledged as the discoverer of HIV, gives a Gallic shrug and shakes his head. "Fierce! The pressure was very intense I." The words trail away.
Montagnier has already written one book about the Aids saga, Des Virus et des Hommes. In time, he indicates, he could write another that would contain all of the bits left out of the first. In the book, he recalls his anger at Robert Gallo, the controversial United States researcher also involved in the international race to discover the retrovirus (see box). Montagnier also describes his bitterness at having the paper about his team's discovery of HIV rejected by the journal Nature. Another journal, Science, published the paper after Nature had turned it down. "It was a good paper, but that's life I you have to be patient. The scientific community always finds it hard to accept something new," Montagnier says.
He can afford to be magnanimous. He was, after all, vindicated at every stage of a battle that he began as a virtual unknown and ended as a national hero at the pinnacle of medical science.
The scramble to identify HIV and, subsequently, develop a blood test to detect the presence of the virus was a complicated tangle, with vested interests and laboratory rivalries locked in a race to get results, to publish and to patent a test.
In its early days, the French team -David to the US Goliath - was an inspired informal grouping of researchers and doctors who fought together against French institutional indifference and aggressive US competition. "When we were surrounded by enemies, the team was strong. Once the reality of HIV was confirmed, it became difficult because everyone wanted to get something out of it. Everyone did benefit, but I got more media attention. Some did not like that," Montagnier explains.
Montagnier also had to fight to maintain his team's lead over other French researchers. The group narrowly beat a second team to the announcement of the discovery of HIV-2 in 1985. Montagnier's first team has since split up - most of its members now head laboratories all over France - and Montagnier has a new team working on the search for an Aids vaccine.
Unusually for a French researcher, Montagnier began his career with three years in Medical Research Council laboratories in Britain. When the two-year limit allowed by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique passed, Montagnier used a fictional Paris work address to continue in Britain.
Initially, he was taken aback by the British laboratory routine of the 1960s -"they came late, coffee-break at 11, tea-break at three; and I was the only one to turn up on Saturday mornings." - but Montagnier was impressed by the standard of research. During his stay in the United Kingdom, he took part in a "first",a molecular discovery. When he returned to France, where "there was not the same atmosphere of competition in the labs as in the US or Britain", Montagnier imported the MRC way of organising research -minus the tea-breaks.
He had less luck in his attempts to make changes in institutional organisation. "In the 1970s, I proposed a cancer institute combining clinical and laboratory research, and I repeated the proposal for Aids after the HIV discovery in 1983," he recalls. Only university teaching hospitals combine the two -the CNRS and the Pasteur Institute do not. "A teaching hospital professor came to see me when I tried to combine the two in 1983 and said, 'If you go ahead - it's war.' The fear was that it would create too great a power base," he says.
When the Pasteur Institute finally offered Montagnier beds for Aids patients in its small clinic, he turned it down because he had found the means to conduct clinical research through a private organisation set up jointly with Unesco. "I was finally given a new building at Pasteur, but not the freedom to choose all of my team or do clinical research," he says."So I set up a foundation that takes a global approach to research, treatment and preventive measures, with centres in Paris and Africa and a network with labs all over the world."
Montagnier was never made a director of the Pasteur Institute, despite bringing the institute prestige and money with the HIV test patents. "Pasteur has not had a Nobel prize since 1965. But there has been a constant fear that if too much importance is attached to Aids (research), there will be less for other Pasteur research," he notes.
The final straw came with an institutional cost-cutting exercise that forced 100 top scientists to retire at 65 instead of at 68. "After protesting, we reached a compromise. We can stay in an emeritus position but not head a team. I have to retire from the CNRS next year and from Pasteur in 2000, but I am not at all exhausted. My mental and physical states are good," says the 65-year-old Montagnier. He has taken up a life chair at Queen's College, New York, where he has set up a research centre for his foundation.
The US system not only allows scientists to continue working after 65, it requires that they teach undergraduates -Ja new experience for Montagnier. "I'm looking forward to it. A few years ago, I would probably have been unable to accept coming down to that level. But when you get older, you get a different view of things", he says.
And the prospect for a vaccine against Aids? "It will probably be another 10 to 15 years. With real political will - an effort comparable to a war effort -Jit could come in five years. The US has the money, but is tied up in committees and slow decisions. I hope it will come from our lab", he says.
The race is still on.
CAMPAIGN FOR DUE CREDIT
Robert Gallo, head of the National Cancer Institute in the United States, discovered the first human retrovirus, HTLV-I, in 1980. When he discovered the second, HTLV-2, in 1982, he sought a link between it and Aids.
Luc Montagnier began research on the Aids virus in January 1983. He isolated the virus (named LAV) and published first findings in Science in May 1983. Problems with cultivating cell lines held up proof that LAV was indeed the retrovirus responsible for causing Aids in humans.
Gallo announced he had discovered the Aids virus, HTLV-3 in April 1984, but it was later shown that HIV does not belong to the HTLV group. His isolate was a sample from the Montagnier laboratory, with which he had been exchanging specimens.
The French government protested when the NCI got the first patent for the retrovirus in June 1985 even though it had applied later than the Pasteur Institute. The Pasteur Institute subsequently sued in the US Claims Court.
In 1987, the US and French presidents, Ronald Reagan and Francois Mitterrand, approved a deal sharing the patent. The debate revived in 1989 with attacks on Gallo in the Chicago Tribune and an inquiry by the Office of Scientific Integrity. France demanded a review of the patent settlement,which was revised in the Pasteur Institute's favour in 1991.