Feature Interview

Functional HIV cure is no pipe dream, says codiscoverer of the virus

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f2947 (Published 13 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2947
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. 1London, UK
  1. geoff{at}scileg.freeserve.co.uk

Geoff Watts talks to French virologist and Nobel prize winner Françoise Barré-Sinoussi about HIV and the prospects of a cure

Rounding off the autobiographical statement she issued on receiving the 2008 Nobel prize for her part in discovering the human immunodeficiency virus, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi wrote: “I anticipate continuing my professional endeavours largely unchanged.” Indeed she has.

To a British ear, long accustomed to hearing winners of the UK’s national lottery similarly deny that their good fortune will change their lives, that sentence strikes an oddly familiar albeit incongruous chord. But while any comparison between the luck of a lottery draw and the intellectual labour underpinning a Nobel award is ludicrous, the two events do have one thing in common: their consequences are not always as you might predict.

When I confidently suggested to Barré-Sinoussi that her Laureate status would have guaranteed her easier access to research funds, her response was immediate. “Not at all.” Her laboratory, she says, has to apply for research grants—sometimes without success—exactly as before she won the prize. Paradoxically, it can even make things harder; some grant awarding bodies are less inclined to be generous, wrongly believing that any lab run by a Nobel holder is bound to be awash with money.

I was more on target in suggesting that the Nobel prize has made it easier to get a hearing for her ideas. But for winners whose concern with their work is more than intellectual—and Barré-Sinoussi’s certainly is—even this carries a penalty. “I have tried to be a voice for scientists and a voice for people living with HIV. So I feel even more responsibility on my shoulders than before.”

Moving targets

The focus of research into HIV has shifted in response to knowledge and experience. In the early years it was simply to pin down the …

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