This month’s notable figure in public health does not stand alone in his crowning achievement- the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS. As a result, the other members that contributed to the discovery of the link between HIV and AIDS will also be given a nod.
Luc Montagnier was born in France in 1932 where he grew up amidst World War II and the German occupation of the country of France. He was inspired to pursue virology after learning of the discovery of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and the subsequent research conducted on the virus. His early research in virology involved hand foot and mouth disease, which proved that viral double-stranded RNA can replicate in a similar fashion to DNA. His research then turned to oncogenic viruses, or viruses that cause cancers. He discovered that the genetic material contained within the virus is enough to have a cancerous effect. His research specifically focused on oncogenic viruses that contained RNA instead of DNA. These viruses became known as retroviruses. Dr. Montagnier’s lab began searching for retroviruses in human cancer patients.
In 1982, Dr. Montagnier became involved in HIV research in France due to the growing suspicion that the disease may be caused by a virus. Multiple virologists around the world were working to determine the composition of the HIV infectious agent. In early 1983, his lab discovered Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus (LAV), named for the virus isolated from patients displaying swollen lymph nodes in early stages of AIDS. The growth of the lymph cells in cultures utilized the technique discovered and developed by Dr. Robert Gallo. His lab’s discovery allowed researchers to grow T-cells and study the viruses that affect them, thus making LAV research possible. Dr. Montagnier, aided by the assistance of Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Chermann who both had previous research and experience with retroviruses, grew and examined LAV cells in cultures. These gentlemen recorded the RT activity in the culture and conducted valuable research in the growth and development of the samples of the new virus. In September 1983, in the midst of the AIDS outbreak, Dr.Montagnier made a presentation of his team’s scientific findings and data that linked the newly determined LAV to the disease in a causal manner. LAV would later become known at HIV. At the time this announcement was controversial because the viral data collected by Dr.Montagnier classified the virus in a different family from HTLV, the only known retrovirus of the time. However, closely followed research performed by Dr. Gallo and Dr.Jay Levy confirmed and extended the findings that the HIV virus was not part of the HTLV family. The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Dr. Montagnier and Dr.Barré-Sinoussi for the discovery of HIV and their pioneering work in the field of virology. (There has been a controversial debate surrounding the members of the award as Dr.Gallo was notably absent from the recognition despite the use of his techniques and previous research in the discovery and testing of HIV)
Today, thanks to the research of Dr. Montagnier and other scientists, we now know that HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus’s transmission to humans is linked to a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa. This transmission from animals established a new disease among the human population and eventually began a worldwide outbreak of HIV. The HIV virus attacks a component of the immune system, called T cells. Since it affects the immune system’s function, people with HIV are more likely to get infections and as the disease progresses, uncommon opportunistic infections and cancers can result from the body’s inability to adequately protect itself. AIDS is the most severe stage of HIV. At this level, the number of T cells is below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (normal is 500 to 1,600). Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV or for AIDS, but there is treatment available to prolong life and slow the progression of HIV. Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive about 3 years, but people who are treated with antiretroviral therapy (ART) while in the HIV stages of the disease can live almost as long as their healthy counterparts.
For any readers interested in the complex (and slightly messy) discovery of HIV, a great dramatization of the events is displayed in the movies “And the Band Played On.“