Luc Montagnier, Co-Discoverer of HIV

Nobel Laureate Noted for Landmark Discoveries, Controversial Reseach

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Dr. Luc Montagnier in July 1995 at the 19th International Congress of Chemotherapy (ICC) in Montreal, Canada. Photo Credit: Túrelio

Luc Antoine Montagnier is the French virologist who, along with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, received the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Montagnier is also known for much-criticized research in which he claimed to detect electromagnetic signals form bacterial DNA and suggested the same approach could be used to detect HIV DNA in patients on antiretroviral therapy.

Early Career

Montagnier was born in Chabris, near Tours, France, on August 18, 1932. He studied natural sciences at the University of Poitiers and received a science degree from the University of Paris in 1955. In 1960, he qualified for his doctorate in medicine at the same university. Montagnier became research director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in 1974 and in 1985 professor at the Institut Pasteur, with which he remained a long-time researcher.

In the years before the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Montagnier made many significant discoveries which contributed to the understanding of how viruses can alter the genetic information of host organisms. His investigation into interferon, one of the body's immune defenses against viruses, opened avenues for medical cures for a number of viral diseases.

In 1982, Montagnier's research positioned him as a leading investigator into a mysterious disease that was killing a growing number of gay men in major cities in the U.S. The disease, known in the early years at GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), was believed to be caused by a virus.

By 1983, Montagnier, along with Barré-Sinoussi, were able to isolate a novel retrovirus from an infected patient, which they christened lymphadenopathy associated virus (LAV) as a result of the swollen lymph glands seen in infected patients. They published their soonafter, suggesting that LAV was the source of the newly renamed disorder, AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

Discovery Leads to Controversy

By early 1984, another team in the U.S., led by leading cancer researcher Robert Gallo, announced that they had isolated a similar virus, which they named HTLV-3. It was only revealed two years later, after much contention and accusation, that HTLV-3 was the very same virus as LAV. Some in the press had suggested that Gallo somehow stole the sample from Montagnier's lab, a charge that Gallo vehemently denied.

After much investigation, it was finally revealed that Montagnier's lab had inadvertently contaminated a viral specimen with LAV and then shipped the specimen to Gallo's lab in the U.S. The specimen was then added into a larger viral pool from which Gallo and his team made their discovery a short time later.

Despite clarifying the error (and splitting the patent rights 50/50 between the U.S. and France), the 2008 Nobel committee decided to only include Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi as recipients, a decision that many saw as a clear snub to Gallo.

From the Nobel to Scientific Notoriety

Soon after winning the Nobel, Montagnier became a target of scientific derision when he published research concluding that diluted bacterial DNA can emit electromagnetic signals which scientists can use to detect infection.

A second article suggested the same technique could be applied to HIV DNA.

What angered many scientists—beyond the fact that the research appeared to support largely debunked homeopathic practices—was that the articles were never peer-reviewed and appeared in a scientific journal for which Montagnier was the chair of the editorial committee. Moreover, efforts to replicate Montagnier's findings had all failed.

Despite being met with harsh criticism by scientific community, Montagnier continued his research and, by 2005, found himself suing inventor Bruno Robert for patent right infringement related to an electromagnetic emitter which Robert claimed had homeopathic benefits.

In May 2012, Montagnier stirred further controversy by suggesting that autism was linked with childhood vaccinations, a charge that many scientists claimed bordered on medical quackery.

Sources:

Montagnier, L. "Historical essay. A history of HIV discovery." Science. November 2002: 298(5599): 1727-1728.

Gallo, R. "Historical essay. The early years of HIV/AIDS." Science. November 2002: 298(5599): 1728-1730.

Gallo, R. and Montagnier, L. "Historical essay. Prospects for the future." Science. November 2002: 298(5599): 1730–1. doi:10.1126/science.1079864. PMID 12459577.

Hall, H. "The Montagnier 'Homeopathy' Study." Science-Based Medicine. October 29, 2009.

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