Françoise Barré Sinoussi, The Woman Who Discovered HIV

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, born July 30, 1947, Paris is a French Virologist who was a co-recipient, with Luc Montagnier and Harald zur Hausen, of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Through dissection of an infected patient’s lymph node, they determined that AIDS was caused by a retrovirus, which came to be known as HIV. Their work led to the development of new antiviral drugs and diagnostic methods.

On her discovery of the virus, she had said- “I had the idea that it was an important discovery because I was convinced that it was a new virus, never identified before. I called one of my best friends in the United States, to share with someone. He said, “Oh, my God. If what you are telling me, Francoise, is true, I would take this virus and I would put it in the garbage immediately because you are going to be in a mess for the rest of your life!” He was right. He was joking, but he made me realize how important was this discovery. Of course it took additional months to make the link between the virus and the disease itself. But there is something that I and others at that time did not realize, none of us in 1983 had any idea of the magnitude of the epidemic, and none of us had any idea about the complexity of the interaction between the virus and the body.

It’s a long way from the early 1980s, when Sinoussi remembers sick, dying HIV-positive patients coming to the doors of the Pasteur and pleading with scientists there for answers. “They asked us: ‘What we are going to do to cure us’,” she says. At that time, she says, she knew relatively little about HIV, but what she was sure of was that these patients would never live long enough to see a treatment developed, let alone a cure. “It was very, very hard.”

Her interaction with real patients, and with their doctors and later their advocates, gave Sinoussi an important insight into what was needed to make her life in science one with meaning and impact- collaboration. She’s disappointed not to have been able to claim ultimate victory in the battle against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes the killer disease AIDS, but also proud that in three decades, the virus has been beaten into check.

In 1975 she joined the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and in 1996 she became head of the Retrovirus Biology Unit (later called Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit) there. From 2012 to 2014 Barré-Sinoussi was president of the International AIDS Society. Working across barriers – be they scientific disciplines, cultural, religious and political divides, international borders or gender distinctions, has been and remains Sinoussi’s driving force.