One of the defining features of the late 20th century was the discovery of the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) virus, now known as HIV.
Luc Antoine Montagnier led the team that identified the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and shared half the 2008 Nobel prize with his colleague Françoise Barré-Sinoussi.
Montagnier, an established expert in virology, was approached in 1982 by Paris clinician Willy Rozenbaum to examine a new illness (AIDS). Rozenbaum and his colleague, virologist Françoise Brun-Vézinet, suspected the disease might be caused by a retrovirus – a viral RNA strand that corrupts existing DNA to its pattern – and within weeks Montagnier’s team found evidence of an active retrovirus in tissue from a patient’s lymph node.
The initial suspect was Human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV), discovered by Robert Gallo’s team in the US. Further tests, however, suggested it was a lentivirus, dubbed lymphadenopathy-associated virus (LAV) by Montagnier, which had equivalents in animals but only seemed to cause immunodeficiency in humans.
Sceptical debate turned acrimonious when Gallo’s team, one year later, added further proof of the link between LAV and AIDS but, thinking they had found a different virus and naming it HTLV-III, effectively laid claim to Montagnier’s work.
The row reached presidential level before agreement was reached and both names were dropped in 1986 in favour of HIV - VIH in French. (HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus).
Even so, Montagnier expressed surprise that Gallo had been omitted from the Nobel prize for his team’s work before and since the discovery.
This was not Montagnier’s only brush with the law. In 2009 a court found in his favour regarding a patent for detecting electromagetic signals in bacterial DNA.
Luc Montagnier was born in Chabris, France, in 1932. He developed an early interest in science in his father’s hobby laboratory, and in medicine after the death of his grandfather in 1947 from colon cancer.
He studied at the University of Poitiers before receiving his licence ès sciences at the University of Paris in 1955. He taught physiology at the Sorbonne where he gained his MD in 1960 before joining the Medical Research Council in England. There Montagnier first identified an infectious double-stranded RNA which could replicate like DNA by forming a base-paired double helix.
To improve his knowledge of cancers, in 1963 Montagnier moved to Glasgow where he and Ian MacPherson developed the use of agar jelly to grow selectively cancer cells.
Returning to France in 1965 as laboratory chief at the Institut du Radium, Montagnier used his discoveries to investigate oncoviruses. In 1972, he founded the viral oncology unit of the Institut Pasteur.
He also co-founded the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention which co-directs several Research Centers in Africa. He has received numerous awards, including the Légion d’honneur.
Montagnier married Dorothea Ackerman in 1961. They have three children.
By Volker Steger
Luc Montagnier is a big name in science and beyond. His group at the Institut
Pasteur was the first to isolate the AIDS-virus. His drawing? An AIDS-virus ,
sure enough. Just like his colleague Barré-Sinoussi with whom he shares the
Nobel Prize. But their drawings are slightly different: In his, the cells next to
the virus are marked with question-marks, in herʼs, the virus attaches firmly to
what appears to be a protein on the surface of one of the neighbouring cells.
What does this mean – if anything?
Better ask next time!
Luc Montagnier ist ein großer Name – in der Wissenschaft und darüber
hinaus. Seine am Institut Pasteur tätige Gruppe hat erstmalig das AIDS-Virus
isoliert. Seine Zeichnung? Sicherlich ein AIDS-Virus. Genau wie seine Kollegin
Barré-Sinoussi, mit der er sich den Nobelpreis teilt. Aber ihre Zeichnungen
unterscheiden sich doch: In seiner sind die Zellen neben dem Virus mit
Fragezeichen versehen. In ihrer Skizze ist der Virus fest mit etwas verbunden,
was offensichtlich das Protein auf der Oberfläche einer der benachbarten
Zellen sein soll. Was hat das zu bedeuten – wenn überhaupt?
Das frage ich besser beim nächsten Mal!
Two Views of AIDS
by Adam Smith
Although the Sketches of Science exhibition includes several Laureates who shared in the same Nobel Prize, only one pair of Laureates ended-up drawing precisely the same thing. Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, who shared the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), both depicted that virus together with the host cells in the organism under attack. As Volker Steger remarks, looking at the two drawings side-by-side makes for an interesting comparison.
Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi’s identification of the virus associated with AIDS occurred just two years after the first reported cases of the disease, and in the midst of a global research effort directed to finding the cause of the new epidemic. At that time it wasn’t even clear whether the disease was being caused by an infective agent. But the two researchers suspected that it might be due to some kind of retrovirus, a type of virus that piggybacks on the host organism's cellular machinery in an unusual way, relying on it to make the viral DNA it needs to propagate. Despite the fact that retroviruses are rather uncommon agents of human disease, Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi’s gamble paid off. Their studies showed retroviral activity in cells taken from the lymph nodes of patients with AIDS and they then went on to show that virus particles extracted from these cells could infect and kill white blood cells. Within the year, they had isolated HIV from several patient groups and demonstrated that HIV was the cause of AIDS.
Montagnier depicts much the same key elements of the virus as Barré-Sinoussi. The core of the virus, outlined in black, is seen to contain the curled-up genetic material (which in HIV’s case is RNA), together with the reverse transcriptase enzyme, shown as little green balls, responsible for converting this RNA into DNA. Around the outside of the virus particle are the envelope proteins, some shown in a state of detachment, drawn in red. Through his prominent question marks in the host cells shown to the right and left, Montagnier appears to be highlighting the fact that while the virus itself is now rather well understood, much remains to be discovered about why particular host cells are susceptible to infection.