Interview, November 2019
In January 1983 Françoise Barré-Sinoussi discovered HIV – the virus that causes AIDS. Since then, she has worked tirelessly both to find a cure and treatments for the disease and to advocate on behalf of those living with HIV. Inthis interview she talks about her early days working on HIV/AIDS and her hopes and concerns for the future.
Interview with the 2008 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine Harald zur Hausen, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, 6 December 2008. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
The Laureates discuss the differing timelines behind the breakthroughs in cervical cancer and HIV, how their discoveries were applied to creating treatments (10:37), the difficulties involved in making a vaccine for HIV (19:30), and why viruses might play a more important role in cancer (29:30).
The 2008 Nobel Laureates met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm on 9 December 2008 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV programme ‘Nobel Minds’. The programme was hosted by BBC presenter Sarah Montague. The Laureates discussed, among other things, their own achievements, the worldwide financial crisis, and what research they think is needed most right now.
Telephone interview with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi immediately following the announcement of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 6 October 2008. The interview was recorded while Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was visiting Cambodia, and the interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Françoise Barré-Sinoussi] Hello.
[Adam Smith] Ah, hello, Professor Barré-Sinoussi.
[AS] This is Adam Smith from the Nobel Foundation web site.
[AS] We have a tradition of recording very short telephone interviews with new Nobel Laureates after the award, so would you mind if we spoke very briefly?
[FB-S] No, not at all, that’s fine.
[AS] Thank you. Many congratulations, of course, on the award.
[FB-S] Thank you.
[AS] I gather that you are in Cambodia, and how did you hear the news?
[FB-S] I got the news indeed by a journalist from the French radio, the national radio, who called me in the afternoon in Cambodia for an interview, and I didn’t know about the news before.
[AS] And …
[FB-S] It was a big surprise.
[AS] I can imagine. It’s, indeed, it’s 25 years after the publication of those two papers in which you describe the first lentivirus found in humans. Looking back at those experiments where you first identified retroviral activity in – coming from the cells of – cultured from patients, do you remember the sense of excitement when you found that result?
[FB-S] Ah, you know, the excitement was really in different phases, because first it was the isolation of the virus from a patient that was with symptoms associated with AIDS, but he had no AIDS yet. And regulate the virus on lymph node. And, of course it was the surface fragment to get this virus out of the cell culture. But at this time, it was the first isolate only, and secondly we had to compare if the virus had any relationship with HTLV-1, which was the second retrovirus known at that time. And, we obtained reagents from Gallo’s lab to compare, and the second excitement was when we realised that the cross-activity, as we say, with HTLV-1 was negative. That was really for us, telling us that it’s not a known virus up to now. Then we had electron microscopy pictures showing that the morphology was different, and so on. So, it was, I would say, a progressive excitement. Also the fact that each time that we make an hypothesis; for example, of course, we hypothesized that the virus was targeting CD4+ T cells, and then make the experiment, and the answer was, yes, this virus has a tropism mostly for CD4+ T cells, and also was killing the CD4+ T cells. So, you know, all the evidences were really in favour of the virus. Then, we developed diagnostic tests to make several epidemiological studies, and found out that only patients that were with AIDS or with pre-AIDS had antibodies against this virus, and not patients with other disease, or blood donors. So, all the evidence were going together to the role of this virus in this newly identified disease. So, again, it’s a step-by-step excitement phase, I would say.
[AS] And what gave you the idea of looking for a retrovirus in the first place; the original hypothesis?
[FB-S] First thing is because most of the virus family were already explored. For example, some scientists thought that it could be viruses related to hepatitis virus, or to cytomegalovirus, and so on. The – almost the only family that was not explored was retrovirus. Secondly, as I mentioned before, the only known retrovirus at that time was HTLV-1, and it was reported that HTLV could infect T-lymphocytes. And, of course in this disease, in AIDS, we knew that T-lymphocytes were affected in the disease, characterized by immune deficiency in the patients. Thirdly, I will say that we knew also from the literature that cats, when they are infected by a retrovirus, called feline leukaemia virus, most of the cats are dying from immune deficiency before dying of leukaemia. So, it was several line of arguments telling us that we should look for retrovirus really. So the reason, since we were working on mammalian retroviruses at Pasteur at that time, we said, okay, look, we have all the reagents, we have the technique, and so let’s try.
[AS] Yes, and the award of the Nobel Prize will focus attention on the discovery, and on AIDS in general. What would you like the message of the Prize to be? Is there anything in particular you would like people to note at this point?
[FB-S] The main message I will say today is, first of all, that this success in the discovery of the AIDS virus is really a success of a world team with different expertise. And I think, for the future, it’s also important, especially when working on infectious disease, to have a world network of clinicians, virologists and microbiologists, working in the hospitals and basic sciences. This was really essential for me in the discovery of the AIDS virus. And I think it’s essential also for tomorrow for discovering new, emerging, or re-emerging agents responsible for infectious disease.
[AS] And, you find yourself now in Cambodia, so how do you intend to celebrate the award of this Prize?
[FB-S] Right now I must say I’m very, very busy by different phone calls from the media. I’m at the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia, and we try to answer as much as we can. Then, I will probably leave Cambodia earlier to go back to France tomorrow night. And we will certainly celebrate with my own laboratory. We have already started to celebrate with our collaborators here in Cambodia. For me it’s important that the announcement was made at the moment that I was in a developing country because I’ve been working with developing countries since the mid-1980s and it’s really working with those countries that gives me another view, or another way, of orienting my research after the discovery of HIV/AIDS, of the HIV virus. It’s important to really know what’s going on in those countries strongly affected by these kinds of disease.
[AS] Yes, and I know your laboratory has many, many links with developing countries. So …
[FB-S] That’s right.
[AS] … When you come to Stockholm to receive the award in December, perhaps we can explore that in greater detail then. But for now I should let you get on. Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to speak to us.
[FB-S] Thank you, thank you very much.
[AS] Okay, and congratulations again.
[FB-S] Bye bye.
[AS] Bye bye.
[FB-S] Thank you. Bye.
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