Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of an ambitious plan to create an “AIDS-free” generation. Clinton’s calls echo part of an ever-increasing hope sweeping the globe that the fight against HIV is winnable.
One of those on the frontline in the search for a cure is French virologist Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. The Paris-born scientist has quite a claim to fame. With colleague Luc Montagnier, she won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 for discovering HIV.
After initial reports of the virus’ existence in 1981, in 1983 it was Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier who informed a deeply perplexed medical and scientific community just what this strange new virus was.
At the time of discovery, Barré-Sinoussi said she had no idea she would devote her life’s work to it.
“It was around 1985, 1986 that we started to really realise the magnitude of the epidemic,” she told the Star Observer.
“We were very naïve, I remember we were thinking that since the virus was isolated, since we started to make the characterisation of the virus, the repetition cycle and so on it would be very easy to find a vaccine, very easy to have treatment.
“Indeed for the treatment, one can say that was quite fast. For a vaccine, still today we don’t have a vaccine.”
As panic hit the globe in the mid-1980s and HIV began to spread, Barré-Sinoussi and fellow scientists felt intense pressure to find answers.
“It was a difficult period because as a scientist I knew, like others, that even if we were trying to do things as fast as possible, it would take some time,” she said.
“I could not tell [a HIV-positive patient] that we would have a solution very quickly so they could still be alive, but on the other hand I’d say, my God, we have to do this as fast as possible, we have to rush.
“As scientists … we think we would be able to fix this, but how long it would take was our problem. We didn’t know whether it would be five years, 10 years 20 years, 50 years.”
Barré-Sinoussi confessed the pressure took its toll.
“In the 1990s when we started to have treatment we felt relief somehow.
“Then I went through a depression. I got treated and it took me a year. After a year I started to travel again and meet other colleagues.
“The would say, ‘Francoise we did not see you for a while, where were you?’, and I’d said, ‘I’ve been in a depression’, and they’d say ‘You too?’ So we realised that several of us went through that.”
With the strain, however, came a great camaraderie.
“It was a very hard period, but when you are in contact with people affected with the disease it’s also motivation, stimulation to try to do our best,” Barré-Sinoussi said.
“The solution cannot be found by one, two or three people, you have to have a whole network of people working together.
“Like in a crisis period, it’s a solidarity somehow between people and even today, we say we became like a network of friends trying to find solutions all together. Still today, we are good friends, all of us, the patients, the researchers, the clinicians from the early years of HIV, we remain in contact.”
Barré-Sinoussi is passionate about science. Almost too much. During a US conference in 2006, she admitted she was working in the lab on her wedding day and received an anxious call from her husband-to-be, checking to see if she would make it to the ceremony.
“I remember telling my husband, when we were naive after the discovery of the virus, we were working very intensively. I was spending most of my time in the lab, I was going home just to go to bed, get up early to go back.
“One day he told me, you better put a bed in your lab! He started to be nervous after, let’s say, two years, I told him, don’t worry it will be solved, just maybe one more year.
“It took more,” she said with a smile.
Barré-Sinoussi is acting director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and one of a group of 40 top scientists and thinkers involved with the International AIDS Society to develop a strategy to find a HIV cure, or as Barré-Sinoussi prefers, work towards remission of the virus.
“I don’t like the word ‘cure’ because, to be honest, I doubt we’ll be able to totally eradicate the virus, but to have persistent control of HIV infection with treatment,” she said.
“I’m sure we should be able to reach this point with the treatment. When, I don’t know.”
Barré-Sinoussi said she hopes some of the obstacles preventing HIV treatment around the world can be overcome.
“As a scientist, my job is to try to provide scientific evidence and to develop tools for intervention. And those tools should be available for everyone.
“For me it’s obvious that everyone should have access to the progress of science.
“But I’m still very optimistic, thinking with the new generation we’ll see an evolution. Because if there is an evolution in the acceptance of everybody in the world, whether sexual or any other behaviour, I really believe the young generation will be more open.”
INFO: World AIDS Day is on December 1.
Photo: Liquid Creations, Marcus Flack.