In Memorium – Luc Montagnier, The Discoverer of HIV

I don’t know how well-known Luc Montagnier is to the general public, but in my field of virology he was both a giant and a controversial figure. I only met him once as my wife and I had dinner with him and several other scientists at a small HIV meeting in Austin, Texas in 2012. While I didn’t know him well personally, I’ve known about his scientific portfolio since my early training days in science. His most famous accomplishment was the 1983 discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the causative agent of AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), a discovery that earned him the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Born in Chabris, France in 1932, he survived both a near-fatal traffic accident as a five-year-old and then the Nazi occupation of France. After the war, he became interested in science and pursued this educational path until he received his degree in medicine from the University of Paris in 1960. Fascinated by research, Dr. Montagnier was involved in various scientific studies throughout his formal education years. His early projects spanned a variety of areas including plant biology, cell culture technology, bacteriology, molecular biology, and eventually virology where he made his most impactful contributions. Working first in London and then Scotland, Dr. Montagnier studied a small oncogenic virus called polyomavirus and made two seminal advances. First, he developed a new test for assessing the cancerous nature of cells called the soft agar colony formation assay, an approach that became and remains a standard technique used by labs around the world. Second, he showed that polyomavirus DNA alone was able to transform normal cells into cancerous ones, so the whole virus itself was not necessary for oncogenesis, just its genetic material. This observation confirmed that viral-induced cellular transformation was due to viral genes, a concept that became a basic principle of viral oncology.

After his work with polyomavirus, Dr. Montagnier’s interest turned to a type of RNA virus known as a retrovirus. Returning to France in 1972 to head a Department of Virology at the Pasteur Institute, for the next 10 years his lab focused on these viruses. During that period they developed considerable expertise in isolating, growing, and analyzing retroviruses. By 1982,  the AIDS field was suspicious that the causative agent of the disease was an unknown virus, possibly a retrovirus, and Dr. Montagnier’s expertise positioned him to quickly attack this problem. Working with clinical collaborators, Dr. Montagnier received a lymph node biopsy from an AIDS patient in early 1983. Using the techniques and approaches developed in his lab, within months they were able to grow cells from the biopsy sample and isolate the virus that eventually was designated HIV. While many other labs and investigators worldwide contributed to the HIV-AIDS story, Dr. Montagnier’s successful isolation of HIV remains a landmark achievement that dramatically advanced the field. With the causative virus identified, diagnostic tests and antiviral therapies rapidly followed, and HIV-AIDS went from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease.

The controversies surrounding Dr. Montagnier came in the latter stage of his career. He began to embrace fringe ideas and scientific beliefs that were largely discredited as pseudoscience. Many former colleagues publically repudiated him and his strange assertions, yet Montagnier remained defiant and unapologetic for his beliefs. It seems an unexpected end to a brilliant career, and I prefer to remember his seminal achievements rather than the bizarre postulations of his final years. Rest in peace Dr. Montagnier.

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