33 years after discovering HIV

Co-discoverer Françoise Barré-Sinoussi weighs in on progress

BY ANIKA RICHARDS Online/Health co-ordinator richardsai@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, August 20, 2016

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If you had asked me in 1983 when you’ll have treatment [for HIV], I would’ve said ‘I don’t know’," Françoise Barré-Sinoussi said.


The co-discoverer of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Barré-Sinoussi, while speaking to the Jamaica Observer at the recently held International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, marvelled at the progress scientists have made in the fight against HIV/AIDS since she and her colleague Luc Montagnier discovered the virus.

But, more than 30 years after the discovery of the virus that is responsible for acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (AIDS), shouldn’t researchers be further along the continuum to a cure by now?

Barré-Sinoussi, who is also the research director of Exceptional Grade, French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and professor, Institut Pasteur, does not think so. Instead, she insists that scientists have made steady progress.

"We are scientists, we are not God, or we don’t have a magic bullet," she said chuckling.

The virologist added that scientists are doing what they can, based on progress from data and recordings.

Barré-Sinoussi, who is from France, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008, together with Professor Montagnier for their discovery of HIV.

According to the official website for the Nobel Prize, in 1983, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier discovered a retrovirus in patients with swollen lymph glands that attacked lymphocytes — a kind of blood cell that is important to the body’s immune system.

Retroviruses are viruses whose genes can be incorporated into host cells’ deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

The discovery of the virus is said to have been crucial to improving treatment methods for people living with AIDS.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), since the start of the AIDS epidemic, some 35 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses, while an estimated 78 million people have become infected with HIV.

In fact, global statistics for 2015 released by UNAIDS indicate that some 36.7 million people are now living with the virus.

Treatment with antiretroviral therapy (ART) has undoubtedly changed the face of HIV infection from a deadly disease to one that is more manageable. In fact, Barré-Sinoussi told Your Health Your Wealth during the interview that the main progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS has been the development of the antiretroviral treatment.

"We know that the combination of treatment is permitting the patient to live with HIV and to have a life expectancy which is similar to people who are not infected by HIV, so this is wonderful progress," she said.

Barré-Sinoussi pointed out that today there are more and more tools for treatment and prevention, which, she said, is "great".

She noted, however, that there is still a big issue surrounding the implementation of all these tools in order to end the AIDS epidemic.

"And, in addition, we have to think about the future," she continued. "I mean, we also think about adding new tools for prevention, like vaccine, and also to think about new treatment for the future, like the work on HIV cure."

Barré-Sinoussi admitted that although seeing people living with HIV, having a good quality of life — smiling and being active because of ART — is the best gift ever, she is saddened by the fact that too large a number of them still do not have access.

According to UNAIDS, of the number of people now living with HIV, 17 million are currently accessing antiretroviral therapy.

Despite the obvious shortfall, strides have undoubtedly been made in the fight against the virus.

According to Barré-Sinoussi's account, those involved in the fight have moved from being unable to provide answers to people who were staring death in the face, to a point where AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 45 per cent since its peak in 2005.

UNAIDS reports that in 2015, a total of 1.1 million people died from AIDS-related causes worldwide, compared to two million in 2005.

"When we discovered the virus in 1983 we were in a rush, so we didn’t have time to think about how we felt at that time," she recounted. "We knew that it was an emergency. We knew that we had to rush in order to develop diagnostic tests because we already had information that the virus was transmitted by sexual [mode], but also by blood and blood derivatives and the virus was transmitted from mother to child.

"So it was really for us an emergency and we had to develop a diagnostic test... a lot of work had to be done in the shortest period of time, so you can imagine how it was a lot of pressure on us," she related.

Barré-Sinoussi noted too that people living with the virus were coming to them for answers.

"What is this virus? What are you going to do to cure us from this virus?" she relayed the questions they posed.

"So as a human being, it was awful," Barré-Sinoussi said of her interactions with early victims.

"It was awful because we knew as the scientists that it would take time; we did not know how long, but it would take time to develop any treatment for them," she continued.

With a distant look in her eyes, she described how, as human beings themselves, they had to look people who were facing uphill battles in their faces — people who knew they were going to die within a few weeks or months — "and we had no answer for them".

"It is really terrible," Barré-Sinoussi said. "For me, it was my worst experience in life to see people who are going to die and not being able to give them any answer, trying to give them some hope without too much hope, trying to [help] them to remain alive as long as possible without any treatment."

The Nobel laureate recalled how she tried to get people living with the condition to maintain a positive outlook.

"I remember once (I had) to try to tell them, ‘Look, it is okay. I am not HIV-positive myself, I cannot feel what you feel but I can try to understand your feeling. But you are not the only one. Unfortunately, other people like you are in the world who are victims of this virus. Don’t you think that if you work together with the other victims of this virus to try to help those that are even more sick than you are, maybe that will give you an objective? Not only my objective to be alive, but the objective also to keep the others alive as well; and maybe that will help you also to live with the virus and that maybe (it will) also help you to live until we develop something’,"she said of the times she tried to motivate people living with the virus.

Smiling, Barré-Sinoussi shared that she received two e-mails after her Nobel Prize nomination, both of which were from people living with the condition who she had encouraged to join the fight against HIV/AIDS. Obviously amused by the happy memory, she described the e-mails as "wonderful".

Barré-Sinoussi said she had met the two people in the early 90s and that in their e-mails they reminded her that she had encouraged them to work for themselves. She said they informed her that they were part of organisations that help people living with HIV and that they were doing well. They also thanked her.

"Those two e-mails, that was really wonderful for me to receive those two e-mails to say, ‘My God, they are alive’," an obviously overwhelmed Barré-Sinoussi shared.

And, as was evident from all the information imparted in Durban during the conference from July 18-22, the fight continues for all to have equal access to treatment and prevention options. Whether it was inside or outside the conference venue, marches and demonstrations sent a very clear message from Durban: There is a need to redouble efforts to meet global prevention and treatment targets, accelerate research, fully fund the AIDS response, and honour and respect the human rights of all people living with or affected by HIV.





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