Today marks the 10th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 9th part of this series here.
Our 10th Heroes of Progress are Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, two French scientists who discovered that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The pair’s discovery has led to the development of medical treatments that slow the progression of HIV and decrease the risk of the virus’ transmission.
Luc Antoine Montagnier was born August 18, 1932, in Chabris, a small commune in Centre-Val de Loire, France. After witnessing his grandfather suffer and eventually die from cancer in his teenage years, Montagnier decided to become a medical researcher and focus on studying cancer. In high school, Montagnier was a bright student, and his passion for science led him to set up a small chemistry laboratory in the cellar of his parents’ house. Looking back on his homemade lab, Montagnier noted, “there, I enthusiastically produced hydrogen gas, sweet-smelling aldehydes and nitro compounds.”
After finishing his preparatory education, Montagnier began studying at the University of Poitiers. Initially, Montagnier wanted to focus on human biology, but as there was no such specialty at Poitiers, Montagnier compromised by enrolling in a science degree. To gain experience in medical research, he spent his mornings working at a local hospital.
In 1953, Montagnier graduated from Poitiers, and soon began studying medicine at the University of Paris. After graduating with a degree in medicine in 1960, Montagnier devoted the early part of his career to studying cancer. He spent the next twelve years working at various medical research institutes in Paris, London, and Glasgow.
In 1972, Montagnier began working at the Pasteur Institute – a Parisian research center focused on studying biology, diseases, and vaccines. Upon arrival, Montagnier set up the institute’s Department of Virology – a research unit dedicated to detecting viruses involved in human cancers. During his time at the Pasteur Institute, Montagnier and his colleague, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, would make their ground-breaking discovery about HIV.
Barre-Sinoussi was born July 30, 1947, in Paris, France. Barre-Sinoussi showed an interest in science from an early age and decided to continue her passion for knowledge at the University of Paris. Like Montagnier, Barre-Sinoussi initially wanted to study medicine. However, as she came from a humble background, she decided to be pragmatic and study natural science. Natural science was a shorter course than a medical degree, which saved her family money in tuition and boarding fees.
After studying at the University of Paris for a couple of years, Barre-Sinoussi began working part-time at the Pasteur Institute. She soon began working full-time at the institute and would only attend the university to take her exams. Barre-Sinoussi received her Ph.D. in 1975. After a brief internship in the United States, she began working with Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute, researching a group of viruses known as retroviruses.
During the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, scientists were perplexed as to what was causing the outbreak of the disease. In 1982, Willy Rozenbaum, a clinician at Bichat-Claude Bernard Hospital in Paris, asked Montagnier for assistance in establishing the cause of this mysterious new disease. Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi began working immediately, and within a year, the pair made the ground-breaking discovery that human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) caused AIDS. Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi published their findings in an article in Science on May 20, 1983.
The pair’s discovery led to many medical breakthroughs that have helped fight against AIDS, including numerous HIV testing and diagnosis technologies and lifesaving antiretroviral therapies.
In 1985, Montagnier became a professor in the Department of AIDS at the Pasteur Institute. In 1993, he established the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Preventions. Since then, Montagnier has worked at various universities, including at Queens College in New York, and more recently, at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
In 1988, Barre-Sinoussi took charge of her own laboratory at the Pasteur Institute and began intensive research trying to create an HIV vaccine. Since 2006, Barre-Sinoussi has worked as the president and then co-chair of the International AIDS Society. Although a vaccine hasn’t yet been discovered, her team continues to research different mechanisms to protect people against HIV infections.
In 2008, Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in discovering HIV as the cause of AIDS. They shared the prize with Harald zur Hausen, who found that human papilloma viruses can cause cervical cancer.
Montagnier has received dozens of awards, including the Lasker Award, Commandeur de l’Order National du Mérite (a French order of merit), and numerous professional honours from countries worldwide. In 2000, he was portrayed on a stamp issued by Bhutan. Similarly, Barre-Sinoussi has received many awards and honorary doctorates, including the Prize of the French Academy of Sciences and the Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur – France’s highest order of merit.
As HumanProgress.org has previously noted, thanks to the discovery of HIV, and the creation of different treatments, humanity is now winning the war on AIDS. Since the peak of the HIV pandemic in the mid-2000s, when some 1.9 million people died of AIDS each year, less than one million people died from the disease in 2017. New infections have also fallen. In the mid-1990s, there were 3.4 million new HIV infections each year, but in 2017, there were only 1.8 million new HIV infections. That’s a decline of 47 percent.
Without Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier’s contributions, humanity’s crusade against AIDS would not be as advanced or successful as it is today, and millions more people would be dying from the virus each year. It is for this reason that Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier are our 10th Heroes of Progress.