Luc Montagnier, the French virologist and Nobel laureate whose co-discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus sparked a global search for a cure for AIDS, has died. He was 89 years old.
He died on February 8 in a hospital in the Paris suburbs, the Washington Post reported.
The scientist from the Institut Pasteur in Paris shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Françoise Barre-Sinoussi and the German Harald zur Hausen, whose work on the viral causes of cervical cancer was recognized the same year. Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi worked together on retroviruses at the institute, and their findings coincided with similar results presented by Robert Gallo in the United States.
After years of wrangling, Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi were put on trial for isolating HIV before Gallo, whose viral culture originally came from Montagnier’s lab, and Gallo was credited with showing that the virus causes the AIDS. Montagnier and Gallo later reconciled their differences over the discovery of HIV and acknowledged each other’s role in the discovery of the virus.
In 2002, they collaborated on an article in Science magazine, where the two scientists had published their first findings decades earlier.
Montagnier’s research into the cause of AIDS, a mysterious disease in the early 1980s, involved identifying viral isolates in patients with swollen lymph nodes and in people with full-blown AIDS. In September 1983, he established a causal link between the virus and the disease during a lecture at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, although many of his peers remained skeptical. Most still considered HTLV, the only human retrovirus known until then, as the probable cause.
By 1985, Montagnier’s findings had been confirmed by Gallo and a team in San Francisco, led by Jay Levy.
“The globalization of culture has globalized our parasites,” Montagnier said in an interview for the 1994 book “Reinventing the Future.” “You could say that AIDS is a disease of the Boeing 747. Jumbo jets are the vector, and without them there would be no AIDS epidemic.”
Montagnier asserted that while the epidemic is new, the virus is old, perhaps as long as primates exist.
It is estimated that approximately 38 million people worldwide are living with HIV; related diseases have already killed an estimated 36 million people, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. In its latest report, from June 2021, the Kaiser Family Foundation said about 1.2 million Americans were living with HIV and more than 700,000 people had died of related illnesses.
Progression from infection to full-blown AIDS can take up to 12 years and kills most victims within two years of diagnosis. In countries with access to retroviral drug therapies, the prognosis has changed “from a death sentence to an almost normal life,” Montagnier said on the Nobel Foundation’s website. No vaccine has yet been approved.
As part of the effort to defeat the disease, Montagnier created a foundation that set up research and prevention centers in the most affected countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon, to help scientists returning to their home countries to fight the epidemic.
Luc Antoine Montagnier was born on August 18, 1932 in Chabris, located in a French agricultural region south of the Loire Valley. His father was an accountant whose hobby was science and his mother was a housewife who adored Luc, an only child.
At age 5, Montagnier was seriously injured from speeding while trying to cross the road, leaving him in a coma for two days. Three years later, the family was forced to flee the German invasion and had little food to eat for most of the war. The impact that the death of his grandfather from colon cancer had on Montagnier was one of the reasons he studied medicine.
Excelling in science, Montagnier set up a chemistry laboratory in the cellar of the house that was assigned to them after the war. He studied medicine and science in Poitiers, and at the age of 21, he wrote a thesis on the influence of light on the movement of chloroplasts in algae. He then studied medicine in Paris before becoming an assistant at the Sorbonne.
Montagnier decided to become a virologist in 1957 focusing on infectious viral ribonucleic acid, which plays a vital role in gene behavior. Working in Carshalton, near London, and Glasgow, he focused on polyoma, a DNA virus that can cause cancer. At the Institut Curie in Paris, he began to study the replication of retroviruses.
In 1972, Montagnier moved to the Institut Pasteur to create a viro-oncology unit. He was joined there in 1975 by Barre-Sinoussi, who shared the Nobel Prize with Montagnier. Ten years later, they were given the task of researching the virus responsible for AIDS, considered at the time to be a form of human cancer.
Montagnier’s scientific research has been controversial in recent years after he claimed to detect electromagnetic signals from bacterial DNA. His claims seemed to support the general principles of homeopathy, causing many of his scientific peers to shun his findings. Montagnier moved to Shanghai Jiaotong University to continue his research in this area after funding requests were denied in his home country. He was appointed as a professor at the university in 2010.
“I’m a gamer ready to kill,” he once said. “Like a table roulette player, I’m addicted to my lab results.”