Profile of Francoise Barre-Sinoussi

Nobel Laureate Credited With Identifying the Human Immunodefiency Virus

Close up of Sinoussi at a conference
Graham Denholm / Getty Images

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947- ) is a French virologist who was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with fellow researcher, Luc Montagnier, for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Barré-Sinoussi is today considered one of the leading contributors to HIV science after more than 35 years of research, having co-authored 240 scientific publications and registered 17 scientific patents. Among her many distinctions, she was named an Officer in the Order of the Legion of Honor in 2006, considered France's second highest honor.

In 2012, Barré-Sinoussi was named president of the International AIDS Society (IAS), a position which she held until July 2016.

The Discovery of HIV

In 1981, reports of an outbreak of illnesses among gay men in the U.S.—conditions rarely seen outside of people with severe immune deficiency—led to the announcement of a new syndrome that was initially classified as GRID (or gay-related immune deficiency), but was later dubbed AIDS (or acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier, researchers with the Institut Pasteur in Paris, were among a number of international investigating units searching for the causative agent. In 1982, the pair were able to culture cells taken from the lymph nodes of stricken patients, and soon after detected the enzyme reverse transcriptase—the first indication that they were dealing with a so-called "retrovirus."

By 1983, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier had managed to isolate the virus, which they discovered required fusion with T-lymphocyte cells (called CD4 cells) in order to replicate. They immediately published their findings in the scientific journal Science, suggesting that the virus (which they dubbed LAV, or lymphadenopathy-associated virus) was the causative agent of AIDS.

LAV/HLTV-III Controversy

In May 1984, an American team led by biomedical researcher Robert Gallo published a series of papers announcing their discovery of the AIDS-causing virus, which they had christened "HTLV-III." While Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier had isolated the same virus 18 months earlier, Gallo's research provided the scientific confirmation of its association to the syndrome.

A lengthy investigation by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—one which caused acrimonious divisions at the time—finally concluded that the virus used in Gallo's lab had actually come from the Institut Pasteur, apparently through a culture that had been contaminated.

It was during this period of debate that the names LAV and HTLV-III was dropped, and the virus was officially renamed HIV.

In 2008, the Nobel committee decided to honor Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier for their discovery, passing over Gallo and instead honoring Harald zur Hausen for his discovery of human papilloma viruses that cause cervical cancer.

In a 2013 interview with the U.K.'s Independent newspaper, Barré-Sinoussi stated of her association with Gallo: "I have a good relationship personally with Bob. I've no problem at all."

Quotations by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

"There is always hope in life because there is always hope in science." (Interview March 7, 2009)

"Your declaration is an intolerable cynicism." (Open letter to Pope Benedict in protest to his statement that condoms are, at best, ineffective in the AIDS crisis; on March 24, 2009)

"What we are fighting for is the non-negotiable fundamental right to health for all!" (Closing session speech at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 27, 2012)

"A cure (for HIV) for me is almost an impossible mission because the reservoir of cells is not only in the blood. How to eliminate all the cells which are reservoirs is why I say it's an impossible mission. They are everywhere—in the gut, in the brain, in all the lymphoid tissue." (CNN interview, July 24, 2015)

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Article Sources

  • Barré-Sinoussi, F. "Lettre ouverte à Benoît XVI." Le Monde. March 24, 2009.
  • Barré-Sinoussi, F. "AIDS 2012 Closing Session Speech." July 27, 2012.
  • CNN. "HIV discoverer: 'To develop a cure is almost impossible.'" Published July 24, 2015.
  • Connor, S. "A cure for AIDS is now a realistic possibility." Independent. May 19, 2013.
  • Krishnan, V. "There is always hope in science, says Nobel winner who discovered HIV." Express India. March 7, 2009.