HIV pioneer says collaboration paramount to eventual cure | Asia Pacific

HIV pioneer says collaboration paramount to eventual cure

HIV pioneer says collaboration paramount to eventual cure

Updated 10 April 2014, 13:20 AEST

The prominent French virologist Professor Francoise Barre-Sinoussi says scientists have not lost the sense of urgency in seeking a cure for HIV-AIDS.

Professor Barre-Sinoussi, who co-discovered HIV in 1983, says there's also a role for pharmaceutical companies, in the collaborative effort.

The head of the Retroviral Infections Unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is visiting Australia.

I asked her if she ever imagined that a cure would still be elusive three decades later.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, virologist who co-discovered HIV in 1983. Professor Barre-Sinoussi leads the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and is current President of the International AIDS Society

LAM: Discovering the virus 30 years ago, was a tremendous first step, but back then, did you imagine that a cure would still be elusive in 2014?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: You know, 30 years, 31 years ago exactly, we were very naive. We thought, now that we've isolated the virus, identified the virus, it would be easy to find a vaccine, to find a cure.. And 31 years later, we still do not have a vaccine, we still don't have a cure, but at least we have a treatment. Tremendous progress in terms of diagnostics, in terms of knowledge of the disease itself and in terms of treatment, and in terms of prevention.

LAM: Apart from finding a cure, which we all want obviously, a good first step would be getting a vaccine. Why is even that, so elusive?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: Exactly for the same reasons. That the virus is attacking our immune system, the cells that are there to respond against a pathogen - HIV or any others - that makes a challenge, because the virus is altering the function of our cells very, very quickly. More quickly than an immuno response generally can be obtained. So, this is a critical challenge.

LAM: You have always maintained that the discovery of HIV was a team effort. Looking back, did you and your team succeed, partly because there was a sense of urgency, that perhaps is missing today?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: Of course, at that time it was a sense of urgency. I would say that today, I feel the community of scientists working on HIV feel the same things, it is also an urgency. It is also an urgency to find a new therapeutic strategy, because of course, even if we have treatment, we can see today, all the difficulties of implementing on a very large scale, the anti-retroviral treatment. We know that of course, we have to make the effort, to better than the ten million people that are on treatment in the world today, but we know that it will be very difficult. So we have to find other strategies.

LAM: So you're saying the community of scientists still still it as an important race, even if the wider community has lost that sense of urgency?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: Exactly. I really feel that the.. I would not say only the scientific community. I can see the same for people living with HIV. When you ask them, when they're doing well on treatment and you ask them what they expect from us, the scientists, they will tell you immediately (we want) a treatment that we can stop. So it's still an urgency for them, to get such treatment (and a cure).

LAM: You are president of the International AIDS Society and in July, there'll be a huge international conference here in Melbourne...

BARRE-SINOUSSI: That's right, the biggest one.

LAM: Yes. Are these meetings useful?

BARRE-SINOUSI: You know, just before the AIDS international conference, we'll organise a symposium on HIV cures, specifically on HIV cure. It will be just a few days, Saturday and Sunday, before the AIDS conference. And all the scientists from all over the world, involved in HIV cure research, will be there. So it is very important, it's a meeting, it's a way to connect the scientists and to work together.

LAM: So you're saying that email and papers and all that, they're not enough. It's good always to meet face-to-face?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: It's always very important to meet face-to-face, to talk and to try to define together, collaboration, complementarities, in order to go faster and accelerate research in this area.

LAM: And Francoise, your personal journey in medical research began because one male laboratory head told you that women could never succeed in science, and you set out to prove him wrong. Is that prejudice still around in your field today?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: Oh still. There's been a lot of progress, but if you look carefully, in many countries in the world, even in developed countries, how many women are at the highest position, compared to men? You will find differences.

LAM: But you made it there, so how did you manage, particularly for women of your generation?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: Oh, first of all, it's a fight every day. You have to er..

LAM: To make yourself heard?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: To try to give the best of yourself. That means don't count your time. Spend lots of percentage of your life on it.

LAM: In the lab?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: In the lab, and also in conferences, in meetings with others, in order to be accepted by the whole community, scientific communities around the world. Ya, it's hard, it's very hard. However, if you're persistent, it's always what I say to the younger women - If you have the motivation, if really it's your life to be a scientist, please be persistent. This is a wonderful work that you're doing for others.

LAM: There are of course, many women scientists today, but as you point out, not many in terms of a leadership role. What are some of the barriers that are unique to women, in the field of medical and scientific research?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: Difficult to know, I mean, you should ask this question to the males..

LAM: (laughter). So you think the men are putting up the obstacles?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: (Smiles). I don't understand, I mean there's alot of very good women in science. And I think particularly in the field of HIV-AIDS. We have been very lucky to have many excellent women working in the field. And who're a leader. You have one here, in Australia, with the President of the next conference, (Professor) Sharon Lewin - she's the leader of HIV cure in the world!

LAM: Speaking as a scientist and someone with your wealth of experience, how do you assess the state of HIV research today - do you think scientists are collaborating as they did thirty years ago, when you first started?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: I would say, today, they're doing better than they were a few years ago. The first period, has been a wonderful collaboration between scientists, until we had the anti-retroviral treatment in 1996 - that was a new story, a new page. Patients were doing well.

LAM: Is there a role here, for big business - for pharmaceutical companies, to get involved in this race for a cure?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: I think they are, already. From my experience, talking with them about the future strategy for cure, or for sustainable remission. I think they're ready to play the game - a true collaboration.

LAM: Not just funding?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: Not just funding.

LAM: So money is not the main problem here?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: We need to work together, that's the main problem.

LAM: Scientists and the pharmaceutical companies?

BARRE-SINOUSSI: And the public and the private sector - like in the early years of HIV.

LAM: So it's a wholistic race?



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