The woman who helped solve the medical mystery of the century

Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi originally wanted to be a doctor but decided to become a scientist because the long years of medical studies would have been a financial burden for her family. In a fortunate twist of fate, as a researcher she has no doubt saved far more lives than if she had followed her original inclination. Winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her co-discovery of the HIV virus, the cause of AIDS, Professor Barré-Sinoussi has earned the gratitude and admiration of millions around the world. Thanks to her and co-winner Dr. Luc Montagnier, AIDS is now a treatable disease rather than a death sentence, and her work will hopefully lead to a cure.

The mysterious disease

AIDS and HIV have become such household words that one has difficulty remembering that in the late 70s and early 80s neither term existed. The healthcare community was increasingly alarmed about a “mysterious disease”, a “gay cancer” “a strange epidemic” that was sweeping through the gay community and beginning to appear in other segments of the population. No one had ever encountered the illness before and Professor Barré-Sinoussi was among the first researchers to mobilize. Lead writer of a 1983 paper that identified the HIV virus as the cause of the disease, she was one of the original voices warning of its potentially catastrophic consequences. She called for both widespread testing to control the epidemic and urged the scientific community to immediately begin searching for a treatment.

Her moment of truth

Director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Professor Barré-Sinoussi remains one of the key figures in the worldwide struggle to find a cure for AIDS. She was President of the International AIDS Society from 2012 to 2014 and is currently a member of the Society’s Governing Council. She also acted as the Co-Chair of the 20th International AIDS Conference held last month in Melbourne, Australia. During the conference she was interviewed by Professor Rob Moodie, Professor of Public Health at the University of Melbourne, and spoke movingly of the early days of the fight:

It was in San Francisco, which was strongly affected, particularly the homosexual population. I was invited to give a talk on the virus, and at the end of the talk the clinician Paul Volberding asked me whether I would visit a patient in the emergency room, and I said yes. Of course, it was dramatic because the man was really dying and he was barely able to speak. He took my hands--I still feel that moment he took my hands--and said something I had difficulty understanding, but by reading his lips I could see that he was saying ‘thank you.’ He saw the look on my face, since we both knew he wasn’t going to make it, and he said, ‘Not for me, for the others.’ That’s a moment in my life that I think I will remember forever… It was my moment of truth, and it gave me the strength to say ‘We have to move on this as fast as possible.

Activist scientist

Far from an ivory-tower academic, Professor Barré-Sinoussi is adamant about the need for collaboration in the healthcare sciences—between basic research and clinical research, between scientists, patients, practitioners and activists. She has also worked tirelessly and quite successfully to initiate and maintain joint projects with research centers in developing countries. Arguably, more progress has been made on AIDS than any other illness in recent times. For Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, this rapid advancement is thanks to the “networking and partnerships” she champions. “We don’t say the scientific community. We say the HIV/AIDS community. It’s everybody—scientists and non-scientists--together fighting for the same goal.”  

For Women in Science

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