Luc Montagnier, a French Virologist
Luc Montagnier of the Institute Pasteur in Paris has devoted his career to the study of viruses. He is perhaps best known for his 1983 discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which has been identified as the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). However, in the twenty years before the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Montagnier made many significant discoveries concerning the nature of viruses. He made major contributions to the understanding of how viruses can alter the genetic information of host organisms, and significantly advanced cancer research. His investigation of interferon, one of the body's defenses against viruses, also opened avenues for medical cures for viral diseases. Montagnier's ongoing research focuses on the search for an AIDS vaccine or cure.
Montagnier was born in Chabris, France, the only child of Antoine Montagnier and Marianne Rousselet. He became interested in science in his early childhood through his father, an accountant by profession, who carried out experiments on Sundays in a makeshift laboratory in the basement of the family home. At age fourteen, Montagnier himself conducted nitroglycerine experiments in the basement laboratory. His desire to contribute to medical knowledge was also kindled by his grandfather's long illness and death from colon cancer.
Montagnier attended the College de Chatellerault, and then the University of Poitiers, where he received the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in the natural sciences in 1953. Continuing his studies at Poitiers and then at the University of Paris, he received his licence es sciences in 1955. As an assistant to the science faculty at Paris, he taught physiology at the Sorbonne and in 1960 qualified there for his doctorate in medicine. He was appointed a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.) in 1960, but then went to London for three and a half years to do research at the Medical Research Council at Carshalton.
Viruses are agents which consist of genetic material surrounded by a protective protein shell. They are completely dependent on the cells of a host animal or plant to multiply, a process which begins with the shedding of their own protein shell. The virus research group at Carshalton was investigating ribonucleic acid (RNA), a form of nucleic acid that normally is involved in taking genetic information from deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) (the main carrier of genetic information) and translating it into proteins. Montagnier and F. K. Sanders, investigating viral RNA (a virus that carries its genetic material in RNA rather than DNA), discovered a double-stranded RNA virus that had been made by the replication of a single-stranded RNA. The double-stranded RNA could transfer its genetic information to DNA, allowing the virus to encode itself in the genetic make-up of the host organism. This discovery represented a significant advance in knowledge concerning viruses.
From 1963 to 1965, Montagnier did research at the Institute of Virology in Glasgow, Scotland. Working with Ian Mac Pherson , he discovered in 1964 that agar, a gelatinous extractive of a red alga, was an excellent substance for culturing cancer cells. Their technique became standard in laboratories investigating oncogenes (genes that have the potential to make normal cells turn cancerous) and cell transformations. Montagnier himself used the new technique to look for cancer-causing viruses in humans after his return to France in 1965.
From 1965 to 1972, Montagnier worked as laboratory director of the Institut de Radium (later called Institute Curie) at Orsay. In 1972, he founded and became director of the viral oncology unit of the Institute Pasteur. Motivated by his findings at Carshalton and the belief that some cancers are caused by viruses, Montagnier's basic research interest during those years was in retroviruses as a potential cause of cancer. Retroviruses possess an enzyme called reverse transcriptase. Montagnier established that reverse transcriptase translates the genetic instructions of the virus from the viral (RNA) form to DNA, allowing the genes of the virus to become permanently established in the cells of the host organism. Once established, the virus can begin to multiply, but it can do so only by multiplying cells of the host organism, forming malignant tumors. In addition, collaborating with Edward De Mayer and Jacqueline DeMayer , Montagnier isolated the messenger RNA of interferon, the cell's first defense against a virus. Ultimately, this research allowed the cloning of interferon genes in a quantity sufficient for research. However, despite widespread hopes for interferon as a broadly effective anti-cancer drug, it was initially found to be effective in only a few rare kinds of malignancies.
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a tragic epidemic that emerged in the early 1980s, was first adequately characterized around 1982. Its chief feature is that it disables the immune system by which the body defends itself against numerous diseases. It is eventually fatal. By 1993, more than three million people had developed full-blown AIDS. Montagnier believed that a retrovirus might be responsible for AIDS. Researchers had noted that one pre-AIDS condition involved a persistent enlargement of the lymph nodes, called lymphadenopathy. Obtaining some tissue culture from the lymph nodes of an infected patient in 1983, Montagnier and two colleagues, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Jean-Claude Chermann , searched for and found reverse transcriptase, which constitutes evidence of a retrovirus. They isolated a virus they called LAV (lymphadenopathy-associated virus ). Later, by international agreement, it was renamed HIV, human immunodeficiency virus . After the virus had been isolated, it was possible to develop a test for antibodies that had developed against it-the HIV test. Montagnier and his group also discovered that HIV attacks T4 cells which are crucial in the immune system. A second similar but not identical HIV virus called HIV-2 was discovered by Montagnier and colleagues in April 1986.
A controversy developed over the patent on the HIV test in the mid-1980s. Robert C. Gallo of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, announced his own discovery of the HIV virus in April 1984 and received the patent on the test. The Institute Pasteur claimed the patent (and the profits) on the basis of Montagnier's earlier discovery of HIV. Despite the controversy, Montagnier continued research and attended numerous scientific meetings with Gallo to share information. Intense mediation efforts by Jonas Salk (the scientist who developed the first polio vaccine) led to an international agreement signed by the scientists and their respective countries in 1987. Montagnier and Gallo agreed to be recognized as co-discoverers of the virus, and the two governments agreed that the profits of the HIV test be shared (most going to a foundation for AIDS research).
The scientific dispute continued to resurface, however. Most HIV viruses from different patients differ by six to twenty percent because of the remarkable ability of the virus to mutate. However, Gallo's virus was less than two percent different from Montagnier's, leading to the suspicion that both viruses were from the same source. The laboratories had exchanged samples in the early 1980s, which strengthened the suspicion. Charges of scientific misconduct on Gallo's part led to an investigation by the National Institutes of Health in 1991, which initially cleared Gallo. In 1992 the investigation was reviewed by the newly created Office of Research Integrity. The ORI report, issued in March of 1993, confirmed that Gallo had in fact "discovered" the virus sent to him by Montagnier. Whether or not Gallo had been aware of this fact in 1983 could not be established, but it was found that he had been guilty of misrepresentations in reporting his research and that his supervision of his research lab had been desultory. The Institute Pasteur immediately revived its claim to the exclusive right to the patent on the HIV test. Gallo objected to the decision by the ORI, however, and took his case before an appeals board at the Department of Health and Human Services. The board in December of 1993 cleared Gallo of all charges, and the ORI subsequently withdrew their charges for lack of proof.
Montagnier's continuing work includes investigation of the envelope proteins of the virus that link it to the T-cell . He is also extensively involved in research of possible drugs to combat AIDS. In 1990 Montagnier hypothesized that a second organism, called a mycoplasma, must be present with the HIV virus for the latter to become deadly. This suggestion, which has proved controversial among most AIDS researchers, is the subject of ongoing research.
Montagnier married Dorothea Ackerman in 1961. They have three children, Jean-Luc, Anne-Marie, and Francine. He has described himself as an aggressive researcher who spends much time either in the laboratory or traveling to scientific meetings. He enjoys swimming and classical music, and loves to play the piano.