Luc Montagnier On Gallo And The AIDS Virus: `We Both Contributed'

Editor's Note: "Science is the dominant metaphor of the twentieth century," says author Thomas A. Bass in the introduction to his new book, Reinventing the Future: Conversations with the World's Leading Scientists (New York, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994). "Science is the knowledge in which we place our faith, the solution to our problems, the way out, the way up." Bass's admittedly worshipful respect for science, along with his quest to understand it more fully, has prompted him over

Thomas Bass
Dec 12, 1993
Editor's Note: "Science is the dominant metaphor of the twentieth century," says author Thomas A. Bass in the introduction to his new book, Reinventing the Future: Conversations with the World's Leading Scientists (New York, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994). "Science is the knowledge in which we place our faith, the solution to our problems, the way out, the way up."

Bass's admittedly worshipful respect for science, along with his quest to understand it more fully, has prompted him over the past several years to conduct personal interviews with men and women who, given their research achievements, have played major roles in shaping the international science community of today. His book presents 11 of these interviews, touching on subjects as diverse as molecular biology, genetics, chaos theory, and drug research. Among Bass's interviewees are behavioral biologist Sarah Hrdy, neuroscientist Bert Sakmann, archaeologist Farouk El-Baz, and RU 486 developer Etienne-Emile Baulieu.

Of all Bass's subjects, none, perhaps, has achieved more renown than Luc Montagnier, the French biochemist who laid claim in 1983 to discovering the AIDS virus at his Institut Pasteur laboratory in Paris--a claim that was also subsequently made by United States researcher Robert Gallo, head of the National Cancer Institute's laboratory of tumor cell biology in Bethesda, Md. Acrominious debate over who discovered the virus and who, as a result, deserves to receive royalties on the AIDS blood test has raged for the better part of the past decade.

According to Bass, the American press has branded Montagnier as "patrician and aloof." What he discovered in his interview with the biochemist, however, was a candid, friendly researcher, willing to give his supposed rival Gallo abundant praise as a scientist, while at the same time determined to retain for himself the distinction of having isolated the AIDS virus.

Following is an excerpt from Bass's interview with Montagnier.

Q The American press describes you as proud and ambitious to the point of arrogance. Are you?

A It depends on the day. When you're climbing a mountain, the last thing you want to do is look behind you and say, "Oh my, it's too high, what am I doing up here?" Even if I keep my eyes fixed on the summit, I realize I'm a long way from the top--in fact, there is no summit! In science there are always new problems. If it weren't AIDS, it would be something else. I'm a gambler out for the big killing. Like a roulette player at the table, I'm addicted to getting results out of my laboratory.

Q You've said many times, "I have lots of enemies."

A I do! In France we're very egalitarian, so if you get out ahead of the pack, they shoot at you. I'm a target. This comes not only from my scientific success, but also from my success in the media, which is something new for a scientist in France. From the start, AIDS has been a show-business disease. The press and media have been fascinated by it. People are making major discoveries in other domains, but they receive none of the attention accorded to AIDS, while I'm being barraged with invitations to appear on TV around the world.

Q To set the record straight, did you discover the AIDS virus?

A There's no debate about this point. The argument with Robert Gallo had to do with proving causality. Did the virus I discovered cause the disease? I don't think Gallo disputes that we were the first to isolate the virus and publish our findings in May 1983. All he has ever claimed is that he isolated the virus at roughly the same time. He wasn't able, however, to characterize it.

Q What was your reaction when Gallo announced that he had discovered the virus?

A I remember quite well the day he came to my office in April 1984. He . . . told us he had discovered the virus that causes AIDS, which he was calling HTLV-3. It was obvious his virus was close, if not identical, to ours. My reaction was altogether positive. He was confirming our work.

Q Even though he was claiming all the credit for himself?

A We both contributed to the discovery of the virus. The difference between science and religion is that in science everyone has to agree. For a fact to be a fact, it has to be reproducible. Miracles, by definition, are not reproducible. So if we were capable of isolating the virus that causes AIDS, it's not surprising that others could do it, as well.

Q What was Gallo's contribution?

A He found a way to grow the virus in continuous cell cultures. We developed a similar technique at the same time, but our cell lines were less productive than his. Later we found one equally as good, but in the beginning his line was better. This was important for developing the AIDS blood test. We also owe to him the idea that AIDS was caused by a retrovirus.

Q Some people say that Gallo owes his discovery to samples of virus you sent him in July and September of 1983.

A I don't want to stir up the past. All the details are given in the chronology we published together in Nature [R.C. Gallo, L. Montagnier, 326:435-6, 1987]. It says I sent him the virus. These shipments must have been useful to Gallo, and I don't think he denies it.

Q Is it possible that Gallo's cell lines might have became contaminated with your virus, which would explain why he reproduced it so faithfully?

A These accusations were made by the Institut Pasteur. And Gallo himself did not exclude this possibility.

Q Because of his ability to mass-produce the virus, Robert Gallo has been called the Henry Ford of AIDS research.

A Gallo is not someone who has merely perfected other people's discoveries. Many important findings have come from his laboratory, things like interleukin-2, the growth factor that allowed us to isolate the AIDS virus. He generates a lot of creativity. He's not merely a Henry Ford, a biological mechanic. Gallo and I have worked together in the past, and we'll probably do so again. The unhappy period that he and I lived through was distorted way out of proportion by the press and by the politics of the disease.

Q What was your reaction to the political pressures surrounding AIDS research in the United States?

A I was particularly furious that our patent for the blood test was ignored until Gallo's was accepted. That's what pushed me into starting legal proceedings.

A Scientists in the United States are forced to produce results, which sometimes warps their sense of ethics.

Q Were you surprised by the nature of American science?

A No, I really don't object to the aggressivity of the Americans. I object to the passivity of the French, who met my work with incomprehension and indifference. Thanks to this research, France could be making breakthroughs in biotechnology, but it's letting the opportunity slip through its fingers.

Q Were you pleased with the legal agreement you and Gallo signed in 1987? A Yes, I thought from the start there had to be a compromise. No one should be made to look as if he were losing face. The only solution was to split the royalty money 50-50 and establish a foundation for spending it. I was probably happier about the settlement than Gallo, because it was my idea.

The affair caused a lot of ill will, and AIDS is too important for the problem to have remained unsolved. It was giving certain scientists--and science itself--a bad name. Not to have fought would have created a bad precedent. It would have signaled that one can get away with anything in science, which isn't true.

Q Are you under a gag order that prevents you from talking about the details of the accord?

A It's not exactly a gag order, although it's stated in the agreement that no one will reopen the scientific argument. There were actually two agreements: a legal accord between the American government and the Institut Pasteur, and a scientific accord between Gallo and me, which was published in Nature.

Now Gallo and I are getting along quite well. We respect each other .... I bear no grudge against him. My rancor is reserved for the people who are still trying to get in the way of my research. I have a reputation for being an imperialist, an expansionist, because I ask for a lot of money. But this is what it takes to do research on AIDS. AIDS is not an affair that's going to last 50 years. It's going to be settled in 10 years, and if you want to put the package together, you can't drag your feet.

Q Do you deserve a Nobel Prize for discovering the AIDS virus?

A It's not for me to say. The Nobel committee might want to give the prize to the discoverer of the vaccine, although it was the discovery of the virus itself that allowed for its detection in blood and the development of public health measures that can limit the epidemic, even without a vaccine. The contribution of the American team is also important, so I doubt the prize will go to only one of the virus' co-discoverers. If someone develops a miracle drug against AIDS, that, too, would merit a Nobel Prize....

AIDS is a terrible malady, and I don't want to suggest that scientists are reaping their honors at other people's expense. I haven't changed because of my notoriety, but there's tremendous pressure from the media and the public, who think of us as a cross between magicians and movie stars.

Reprinted from Reinventing the Future: Conversations with the World's Leading Scientists, by Thomas A. Bass.
Copyright c1993 by Thomas A. Bass. Used by permission of Addison- Wesley Publishing Co.