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Tackling a menace

VIRUS: THE CO-DISCOVERER OF HIV TRACKS ITS RAMPAGE AND CHARTS THE FUTURE·Luc Montagnier, Stephen Sartarelli (Translator)· W W Norton & Co·224pp

Published: Wednesday 15 March 2000

 A white blood cell infected b first-hand accounts of scientific breakthroughs always make interesting reading. Luc Montagnier's account of the fascinating discovery of the cause of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome ( aids) is no exception.

In the early 1980s, there was growing evidence about the existence of the virus which was later held responsible for causing aids . Scientists, mainly in France and usa , were racing against time to identify and nail the virus that was responsible for the new killer disease.

In this autobiographical tale of that dramatic search, Luc Montagnier, one of the world's pre-eminent virologists and the co-discoverer of the Human Immuno Deficiency Virus ( hiv) , relates with rare passion the leading role played by the team of researchers from the Pasteur Institute, France, in investigating the hiv virus.

He also details their success in identifying the virus much ahead of the team led by Robert Gallo from the National Institute of Health ( nih ), Bethesda, usa . This controversy-ridden discovery had led to an international furore which was quelled by the intervention of the us and French governments.

Virus gives rare first-hand insights into the events that led to the discovery. Controversies that arose over who discovered what and when a subject that generated almost as much news coverage as the disease itself are covered with a rare quality of objectivity. The book also conveys with crystal clarity the scientific aspects of the disease and its devastating course across the world over the past two decades.

This slim book (about 240 pages) in just nine chapters and four main sections Discovery, Understanding, Treatment and The future of aids covers a very wide canvas.

Montagnier's unique insider's perspective presents a rich snapshot of the greatest plague in modern history. His deep knowledge and insight into the microbes (microscopic organisms), especially viruses, is very evident. Along the way, he provides thoughtful commentary on critical subjects such as the possibilities for a vaccine, the current therapies available to aids patients, prospects for winning the battle against this deadly disease and some telling comments on the way international science operates.

While detailing their work on hiv / aids , Montagnier also looks at how research and clinical medicine sometimes proceed systematically along and sometime stumbles by chance onto new diseases and treatments.

Montagnier's childhood in France was marred by the occupation of Germans. Ever since his school days, Montagnier was very clear about what he would be when he grew up: "I wanted only to research and explore the mysteries of nature." If he chose to join a medical school it was not to fulfill his parents' wish to be a doctor but because that path enabled to become a biomedical researcher. His long associations with the world of microbes started ever since he joined the Curie Institute in France at the age of 23.

Montagnier realised very early that his goal was unachievable in the then post-war France as virology research was not well developed. He, therefore, accepted a job at the National Centre for Scientific Research ( cnrs ), uk , as it fetched him a scholarship to work in England despite the fact that he could hardly speak a word of English. His brief stints at Carshalton laboratory and later at the University of Glowgow helped Montagnier hone his research skills.
Fighting the odds His return to Paris to continue research on viruses provides a rare glimpse of the frustrations that researchers of less developed countries face in pursuing areas of research that are far beyond the capability of the country. With an administration that did not appreciate the urgency of detecting the aids virus and the support needed to carry out the research, and senior colleagues who were resigned to "seeing light coming from across the Atlantic", Montagnier had a Herculean task putting together a young team to go after the virus.

He built bridges with the scientists in the us in this endeavour as he felt that only by collaboration and sharing of material and data could serious health problems such as hiv infection be solved. According to Montagnier, "Living science is a community activity. Without exchange it dies." Sadly, with increasing commercialisation of biomedical research, such camaraderie in science is slowly dying.

There are other vital lessons to be learnt from Montagnier's experiences that are similar to many researchers from outside the us and Western Europe. In fact, the nih collaboration turned out to be some kind of nightmare for the French group. Montagnier found that his research, unlike the work done by the us team, was never given due recognition. More shocking was the attitude of even prestigious international journals like the uk -based Nature and the us -based Science . Reports in these journals showed distinct bias towards the work done by the us team. Montagnier's papers were delayed from publication and doubts cast on the authenticity of his data. On the other hand, some of Gallo's work, that was readily published, were later proven wrong. Moreover, once Gallo realised that the French group was making more progress than the us team, he and the us administration started acting non-cooperative.

The controversy regarding intellectual property, which snowballed into a international furore, is as interesting and relevant to us as is the 'stealing' of material and ideas by scientists from the developed West.

The French group had isolated the hiv virus first and applied for a us patent on December 5, 1983 while Gallo's team submitted the application on April 23, 1984. The us Patent Office granted patent to the us group on May 28, 1985. This enabled the us to license the technology for hiv testing. This, when the French application was not even examined.

The peeved French government took the issue to the us courts. It was proved that the virus used for the patent by the us scientists was the one isolated by the Pasteur team earlier. The us was forced to come to a settlement in March 1987 when a historic agreement was signed between the directors of the nih and Pasteur Institute and ratified by us President Ronald Reagon and French President Jacques Chirac.

The us admitted that it had made improper use of the virus isolated in France. Ironically, when the settlement came, Montagnier's team got a pittance after hefty legal expenses was deducted from their share. Members of the us team Robert Gallo, Mika Popovic and Sarangadharan received $100,000 annually from 1985.
The good work Despite this much publicised conflict with Gallo, Montagnier recounts with a forgiving tone how the two groups made key discoveries about the nature and mechanism of the hiv virusvirtually simultaneously. Montagnier emerges as the voice of perspective and reason: "I admit that I stand apart from Robert Gallo on many matters. Nevertheless, we shared one important thing... the desperate, despairing search for retroviruses linked to human cancers." He also gives credit to Gallo that inspite of not being a virologist, Gallo made tremendous strides in the retroviral research.

Virus is apparently meant for the lay public also as the language and style make it easy to understand the story of aids from its origin to what has been done and is being done to combat the disease. While it is unlikely that the attitudeof the western scientific community will change, Montagnier's perseverance in standing up to themis something to be emulated by others.

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