Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Behind the story: Luc Montagnier

Although I have shifted my focus to archaeology and human evolution in recent years, I served for a long time as Science's backup man on AIDS coverage, and handled the beat solo during 1998 when our main guy on the story--Jon Cohen--was on book leave. On January 16 of that year I published a story entitled "Has French AIDS Research Stumbled?" which included the following sidebar about Montagnier's role since the discovery of HIV. Those interested in the history and background of AIDS research might find it of interest.

The Twin Icons of French AIDS Research

Michael Balter

PARIS--Ask the average French person to identify France's leading AIDS researcher, and one name is likely to come up immediately: virologist Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Montagnier came to public attention in 1983, when he emerged as spokesperson for the group of physicians and scientists that first isolated HIV, the virus that causes the disease. And thanks in part to constant media exposure ever since, he has come to personify French AIDS research both within the country and internationally.

But ask a French AIDS researcher to name the most important figure in HIV research, and you are likely to hear a different name: virologist Jean-Paul Lévy. As director of the National Agency for AIDS Research (ANRS), the government's primary AIDS funding agency, Lévy's power to chart the course of French efforts against the disease is second to none. "If you want to do something, the only person you have to convince is Lévy," says a leading French AIDS researcher who asked not to be identified.

Yet, ironically, members of the original AIDS research team say it was Lévy's unwillingness to take the helm of AIDS research during the early days of the epidemic that paved the way for Montagnier's rise to fame. In 1982, suspecting that a retrovirus might be the cause of AIDS, immunologist Jacques Leibowitch, an early member of the group, asked Lévy and his co-workers at the Cochin Hospital in Paris--where Lévy now directs the Cochin Institute in addition to his ANRS duties--to help identify it. "I tried to involve them," Leibowitch recalls, "but they were reluctant and referred me to other groups." The team then approached Montagnier, who, together with Pasteur virologists Jean-Claude Chermann and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, eventually succeeded in isolating HIV.

As the senior member of that pioneering team, Montagnier became its spokesperson. "Montagnier had an openness of spirit and did not have preconceived ideas" about the cause of AIDS, says Willy Rozenbaum of the Rothschild Hospital in Paris, who was one of the first physicians to treat AIDS patients in France. Immunologist Jean Claude Gluckman of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris says Montagnier "played an important role" in those early days. "He agreed to work on the subject, which others refused to do."

There is another side to the coin, however. Many French AIDS researchers have come to feel that the intense media focus on Montagnier has downplayed his colleagues' roles. "To see him on television all the time is intolerable," says one former member of the team. Indeed, in a 1993 letter to Science, Gluckman attempted to set the record straight by detailing the important contributions made by other members of the group (Science, 26 March 1993, p. 1809).

Moreover, a number of researchers told Science, in recent years Montagnier's continuing media exposure has been less and less justified by his actual contributions to AIDS research. "He has come to occupy a place he doesn't deserve," says a Paris-based AIDS researcher privately. For example, several French AIDS investigators who spoke to Science cited Montagnier's long-running but unsuccessful attempts to prove that mycoplasma--a microbe that resembles bacteria but lacks a cell wall--works together with HIV to cause AIDS (Science, 18 January 1991, p. 271). Montagnier has also been criticized for associating himself with a widely publicized, but quickly discredited, claim by a group at the Pasteur Institute that a molecule called CD26 was a long-sought coreceptor for HIV (see main text). "He has lost a lot of credibility in the scientific world," says Rosenbaum.

In an interview with Science, Montagnier conceded that neither the mycoplasma nor the CD26 story has played out the way he expected. "It is now clear that some strains of HIV can produce AIDS without any cofactors," Montagnier says, although he believes that mycoplasma infection might have been an important cofactor when the virus first jumped from monkeys to humans, as has been proposed as the origin of the disease. As for CD26, he still believes that the protein "could play a role in infection, or could be yet another coreceptor." Montagnier also cites his group's ongoing work on the effect of HIV on apoptosis, or programmed cell death, of T lymphocytes as evidence that he has continued to make important contributions to AIDS research.

But whether Montagnier's high profile is still justified, he has little influence over the funding of AIDS research in France, apart from a considerable amount he has received from the AIDS telethon Sidaction for an independent research center he created at the St. Joseph Hospital in Paris. The real power, for the most part, is wielded by Lévy. About half of the ANRS's $40 million annual spending on AIDS research is reserved for special "coordinated actions," such as vaccine development and therapeutic trials, over which Lévy has considerable discretion; the remainder is awarded to investigators after peer review by scientific committees, whose members are appointed with Lévy's approval.

Some researchers complain that Lévy keeps too tight a grip on the reins of French AIDS research. "He is very authoritarian," says Gluckman, adding that the "policy of the ANRS has been to push people to have short-term results, and that kills risky research." Most ANRS grants run only 2 years, which many scientists complain is not long enough to make significant progress. "This favors unidisciplinary, academic research and does not allow a quick adaptation to new research challenges," says immunologist Brigitte Autran of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.

But Lévy disputes the contention that risky research is being stifled. "You will find very few proposals that have been refused," he argues. "The problem for the committees is to find something original. When we do find it--something truly original and not a fantasy--we support it." Lévy also argues that the system of 2-year grants encourages rather than inhibits shifts to new lines of research. "This field evolves so rapidly that it's not logical to support research for 5 years; it would be stupid. In most cases, the research is reevaluated, and if it is good, there is no problem with renewing it."

Despite the grumbling, however, most researchers who spoke to Science believe Lévy is the best person to lead French AIDS research. Says Simon Wain-Hobson, an AIDS researcher at the Pasteur Institute: "He has made mistakes, but he has probably done better than anyone else could have done."

Photo: Photolibrary via Cosmos


sadunkal said...

Interesting... What do you think about things like this?:
The Perth Group oxidation theory of HIV/AIDS and Professor Luc Montagnier

Do you know about the Perth Group? I think they're pretty important. What's your opinion?

They have also this on their website:
The Perth Group on Montagnier's Nobel

This is a huge topic of course, but I think it's also an extremely important one. So I'd be interested in hearing the opinion of a Science correspondent...

Michael Balter said...

sadunkal, I am afraid that the claims of the Perth group and all others who argue that HIV is not the cause of AIDS have been thoroughly debunked and discredited by AIDS experts and other reputable scientists over many, many years now. The best overall review of the evidence is at this link:

Thank you for your comment, and I hope you will take the time to read this document carefully.

sadunkal said...

You're welcome.

Actually the first link I posted was more -or at least equally- about Montagnier than it is about the Perth Group. My point was that Montagnier appears to have simply stolen the Perth Group's theory without giving any credit to them. Whether or not the theory is significant or correct should be less relevant to you at this point. It's more about scientific ethics.

About the Perth Group's arguments... I know about that document from NIH. I've actually read a lot on HIV/AIDS. I suspect that in certain aspects I might have dug deeper than you have. For now I'll just say that no document I came across convinced me that the Perth Group's arguments have REALLY been debunked. That link you gave for example doesn't even address many important points they make, let alone "debunk" them.

But I don't want to draw you into such a dialog if you're not open to such a possibility at all. Many people need to believe in the infallibility of mainstream science, just like some need to believe in their government, their media or God. So let me know if you're interested, otherwise I've no intention to try to explain why the Perth Group still matters.

It's nothing personal...there were just a few incidences I had to experience where people reacted with anger to such suggestions. ;)


Michael Balter said...

sadunkal, with all due respect, you are confused. What did Montagnier steal from the Perth group? The Perth group claims that HIV has never really been isolated (even Peter Duesberg, AIDS denialist in chief, disagrees with them on this) yet Montagnier just got the Nobel Prize for isolating HIV! They could not be more far apart.

I am certainly open to scientific debate but with people who are informed of the facts. I covered AIDS for many years for Science before going into other areas so I sincerely doubt that you have dug deeper than I, particularly since I have been following things closely since the early 1980s.

Finally, and I hate to say this, but it doesn't matter whether you think the Perth group is right or not unless you are an AIDS researcher or a public health professional--are you?

sadunkal said...

Check the first link I posted again, I'm referring to the oxidation theory, is irrelevant to isolation. Isolation is another topic.

Am I an AIDS researcher or public health professional? No, just a concerned, curious human being. But I can get you one: Gordon T. Stewart, M.D.

I've no idea what he thinks about the Perth Group though. I never saw him talk about it. You can email him if you wish...doesn't have to be about Perth Group either...

Anonymous said...

michael! i think you are not open to different views. you might have covered the aids issue for more than nelson mandela was in prison but that does not mean you have monopoly on the truth of the matter. montagnier is the one who seems to be confused, he says oxidation plays a role in hiv and aids. i have a copy of a receipt that he sent to the perth group acknowledging reciept of their work on oxidation and it relation to hiv/aids. then years latter he goes and makes statements saying oxidation is the cause of aids and does not credit the right owners of the work because he says it will give them credability they do not deserve since they are dissenters. no one has ever discredited the perth group's stand on hiv/aids. unless redicule is a scintific method of proving facts.