It is Sunday. Twenty minutes from Paris and his laboratory, Luc Montagnier smiles on the lawn he has just cut. We have been lucky, as it is rare to find in his piece of oasis a man whose schedule is tighter than that of a minister. A whirlwind of warm air makes sentinel trees shake, while the discoverer of the AIDS virus evokes its beginnings.

Do you remember your arrival at the Pasteur Institute?
-Of course. I will never forget the emotion I felt when I saw the small building where Pasteur died and his modest room. At the Institute, the cult of Pasteur is somewhat exaggerated, close to bigotry … And it is not strange, because the character was, without a doubt, fascinating. I admire your practicality of things, for example. He never lost sight of the potential applications of his research. And besides, he was very brave. I don’t think we scientists today are as bold as he is.

As a scientist, what fascinates you most about the natural world?
-The living thing. The exceptional continuity of the animated world, with its most minute mechanisms, the molecules, its instruments on the scale of the chains of atoms. But also the most complex objects, the most perfect organs. The beauty of science lies in knowing what law presides over this organization of matter.

And it is precisely at that point, at the limits of the living and the inanimate, where your travel companions, viruses … are found …
-Viruses are the best field in which we can work today. It is possible to reproduce or accelerate their evolution in test tubes to observe in a few hours what mutations may occur, how they adapt to the environment. And what is better: this also applies to medicines, perhaps to produce tomorrow in the laboratory products that do not exist in nature and that our mind would have refused to conceive.

This small room is where you spend most of your hours at home. What do you do?
– I would like to sleep a little more, because I have lacked sleep for years, but I have to admit that every time I close my eyes, nightmares usually assail me, so I spend as little time as possible in his company. I have no choice but to think, prepare the questions that I will submit to my collaborators in the Virology Department, and ask myself if it would be necessary to dare with other even bolder clues.
But, without a doubt, this is where his book was forged (Des virus et des hommes. Editorial Odile Jacob. Paris, 1994). In it, Luc Montagnier reveals some fragments of his life. He goes through his childhood openly, the accident that leaves him some sequelae and the disappearance of that grandfather, defeated by cancer, which will confirm his medical vocation.
With the reading we will discover a teenager who devours Jules Verne and nibbles on all the funny experiences that pass through his hands, behind his father’s back, a commercial expert fond of DIY and in love with progress. At the end of the Second World War, the Montagnier family settled in a small cave-laboratory, since their home had been bombed, and there, the young Luc found what he needed to promote his passion for science: sodium electric batteries, laboratory of explosive chemical mixtures … At 23, he is already an assistant in molecular biology at the Curie Foundation in Paris.

When did you start researching AIDS?
-In 1982, the disease began to attract my attention as a researcher. I began to think that the responsible agent could be a virus and chance helped me. It was Paul Prunet, scientific director of the Pasteur Production Institute, who led my first steps in this field. We wanted to know if the retrovirus that could cause AIDS was found in the blood of the laboratory that was used for the investigation of certain cancers. It was an excellent question that was the origin of my team with Cherman and Barré-Sinoussi.

The history of the discovery of the virus will be stained by a scientific controversy caused by a contamination of the viral cultures of Robert Gallo, its American competitor. The virus that his team had made known to the scientific community, according to the rules of international research, was baptized by Gallo with another name and made his own. Today, the controversy is closed for the exclusive benefit of the French, but do you think Gallo really stole his virus?
– I have no reason to doubt that the thesis presented by Gallo attributing the case to an involuntary laboratory contamination is true. But at this point I have to say that if the French Administration had been convinced more quickly of the work of our team, they would have been able to gain months in setting up diagnostic tests and we would have settled the controversy much better.

In what state is the investigation today? Is an AIDS vaccine still conceivable?
-Yes. Although it is a difficult task, without a doubt. For example, the most advanced track, that of neutralizing antibodies, seems destined for failure, since the antibodies only recognize an extremely variable part of the virus. Another more promising, but also more complex strategy, is to put into play antibodies that take care of the conserved parts of the virus. Or even in provoking the immunity of cells against the virus before its intrusion. But this option raises the ethical problem of how supposed vaccines should be tested. Even so, hope could come in more original ways, through an experience on the ground.

On the ground, do you mean, for example, in Africa?
-We have a lot on that continent. There the incidence of the disease is very high and in some countries the percentage of infected individuals can rise to 10%. The chances that an inhabitant will come across the virus are immense. However, it has been found that a certain number of citizens are never infected. They may have natural immune resistance. It must be studied because cases of spontaneous immunity against AIDS open a new avenue to hope.

With respect to the partial or total vaccine, the researchers test all possible therapeutic solutions, such as the associations between different antivirals that act on different stages of the virus’ reproduction.
-Yes. In my opinion, a comprehensive therapeutic approach is necessary. We have to combine antioxidants and antibiotics, restore cellular immunity that allows long-term survival, etc. All this with the idea of slowing down the evolution towards the disease, of course. When the different means of struggle are well known, we will be able to massively use these drugs.

And in the field of treating already infected patients, what new trends have emerged?
-The new objective, which arises with a few weeks of shock treatment, is to remove the viruses present in the cells in a latent state, then to corner them through an antiviral treatment and thus fight against the infection. This is the type of strategy that I want to be studied in the clinical research centers that are part of my foundation.

Let me ask you about an unpleasant aspect of your job. You are an honors researcher, used to scientific battles around the most discussed topics. However, he is not therefore immune to the scourge of the disease, and some of his friends have died from it …
-I rage daily for it. It is the hardest aspect of my career, but also a formidable source of motivation.

Once again, death rekindles your vocation as a doctor, as when your grandfather died …
-Yes, dealing directly with the problem is a stimulus for work. I have even thought of bringing HIV-positive people to my laboratory so that they can get to know the researchers closely, but I don’t know how to do it. But for me, it is clear, the motivation is there, in the urgency so that tomorrow those same carriers that we know today can tell in the past: “I had AIDS.” You have to lift your nose from the table, think about the sick … I remember all the names of the first patients. It is not easy to rub shoulders with death, but it must be done.

For more than a year, you have also transferred your battlefield to the offices to make your foundation live with the financial support of Unesco …
-The fruits of this corridor work have matured. We have already started to build three clinical research centers. There is one at the Saint Joseph hospital in Paris, another in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and another in the United States, in San Diego.

Although I suspect that it will not be enough for an enemy of time … Three million sick people and seventeen million HIV positive people in the world is enough to search every moment for the last breath of energy.
-It is true, I have sacrificed many things in this fight, but could I do otherwise? There is so much to try …
To meet his uncontrollable need for work, Montagnier organizes meetings between physicists and biologists, and attends as many international conferences as he can. To make matters worse, on Sundays, the virus scout spends a few hours of freedom to prologue a biography of Pasteur on the centenary of his death. “Pasteur lived apart from society, he detested worldly life. However, he always thought about the industrial and social applications of his work. I am sure he would have cared about researching AIDS.”
Patrice Lanoy

This interview was published in March 1995, in issue 166 of VERY Interesting



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