Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Novel Justice on HIV from Nobel Prize

Well I might be a bit late for this post but... The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 2008 went viral and was granted this Monday to three scientists from the viral research line: 1/2 prize was granted to Harald zur Hausen, for discovering human papilloma virus as a cause of cervical cancer; and another 1/2 (that is, 1/4 each) to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, for the discovery of the HIV virus.

Now, it's great that the Nobel recognizes the outstanding labor of researchers around the world. And I won't go into how this turns into courth
ish or royalty-like in science. The really GREAT thing is that this could be read like the final word on the "controversy" around who really had the credit for the discovery.

That is, Montagnier's lab had already reported in Science (with Barré-Sinoussi as a first author) the isolation and initial characterization as a T-lymphotrophic retrovirus from a single AIDS patient. They also linked it (or the family it belonged to) to AIDS.

Robert Gallo (the discoverer of the first human retrovirus in 1980) had been searching for the viral causative agent of AIDS for a while, and wanted to link it to his already discovered HTLV virus. He had already assigned multiple functions to this virus and wanted it to be also the cause of AIDS. He actually reported the dicovery of his so-called HTLV-III virus as the causative agent of AIDS in a Science special issue. He basically reports the methodology to study HTLV-III viruses, the presence of the virus in AIDS patients, and the presence of antibodies against the virus in AIDS patients.

So, what's the problem with this? Well, it started when Gallo asked Montagnier some samples and data. Then, during Gallo's press conference, he used an image from Montagnier's virus. Just after the press conference, he filed a US patent on the detection tests. The French complained (!) and led to a large and mediatic dispute that was partially settled when Reagan and Chirac agreed on sharing the credit AND the money...

In 1993, an article by Sheng-Yung Chang and collaborators analized the archived samples from both l'Institut Pasteur and the Laboratory for Tumor Cell Biology, and found that out of six HIV variants found in Gallo's lab, none of them was similar to the one he isolated. In contrast, they were identical to the french isolate. And though they politely described it as "a contamination", it seemed quite clear (at least to me) that Gallo couldn't find the virus he wanted to find in his own samples, and so took the french virus and turned out to be the one he was looking for.

Recently in 2002, they tried to settle things up (and clean a stain in the history of science on the "mine's bigger" credit) by a collaborative publication by both Gallo and Montagnier. I don't think the peace-making settlement received as much attention as the dispute, as usual.

So, 25 years and an international agreement later, the French are acknowledged by the elite of the scientific community as the discoverers. On interview, Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi credit Gallo. Diplomatically, Gallo congratulated the french.

Hope all the people in Africa benefit from this tangled web of credits and money.

(And before anyone makes an attack on this... 1) Without Dr. Gallo's research, no HIV virus could have been linked to AIDS; 2) HIV isolation and discovery's credit goes without doubt to Montagnier's; 3) As persons, I equally dislike both scientists, specially after quarreling about who would earn the most out of people's diseases).

1 Comment:

Elotzontli said...

Y otro premio nobel para un francés, Le Clezio, de literatura. Allez les bleus!