The woman who discovered HIV says a ‘cure’ is possible

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi -- Flickr, Academy of Medical Sciences

This week’s podcast features the Nobel Prize-winning scientist and AIDS activist, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who was in Seattle this week for a meeting devoted to finding a cure for HIV. That sounds pretty ambitious, right? Or ridiculous, you say? Given that we are now more than 30 years into the pandemic, we still don’t have an effective vaccine and the drugs for treating the infection are needed for the patient’s entire life to stave of AIDS or other related illnesses, it may sound a bit unrealistic, if not hubristic, for scientists to talk of curing HIV.

Yet what was once considered pie-in-the-sky thinking is now in the realm of possibility. Barré-Sinoussi, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (yes, they should give it a new name) with her Paris-based Pasteur Institute colleague Luc Montagnier for their 1983 discovery of HIV, is a careful and deliberate researcher not at all prone to hyperbole. Barré-Sinoussi doesn’t like using the simple word ‘cure,’ but she does think a ‘functional cure’ – what cancer docs call long-term remission – is quite possible given some of the latest findings and advances in HIV-AIDS science.

We talk to Barré-Sinoussi about why she thinks a cure, putting HIV into permanent remission, is a real possibility, about why we desperately need a cure because she thinks we will never get the drugs to everyone who needs them, the critical importance of reducing the kind stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive people that still fuels the global spread of this disease and, briefly, about the distasteful episode in which an American scientists, Robert Gallo, tried to steal some of the credit for the original discovery of HIV. Tom Paulson even learns how to (almost) correctly pronounce Barré-Sinoussi’s name.

The Humanosphere podcast was on a hiatus this summer, in part due to some website changes, in part due to it being summer and also in part because Tom broke his 87-year-old mother’s femur (with a badly placed soccer ball kick during the World Cup frenzy) and he needed to do penance. But we are back, new and improved, and open the podcast with a review of some of the news highlights – or low lights, depending upon your perspective.

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About Author

Gabe Spitzer

Gabriel Spitzer covers health and science at KPLU, after a year covering youth and education. He joined KPLU after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago.

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    “The fact that the CCR5-delta 32 mutation is restricted to Europe suggests that the plagues of the Middle Ages played a big part in raising the frequency of the mutation. These plagues were also confined to Europe, persisted for more than 300 years and had a 100% case mortality.”

    Around 1900, historians spread the idea that the plagues of Europe were not a directly infectious disease but were outbreaks of bubonic plague, overturning an accepted belief that had stood for 550 years. Professor Duncan and Dr Scott illustrated in their book, Return of the Black Death (2004, Wiley), that this idea was incorrect and the plagues of Europe (1347-1660) were in fact a continuing series of epidemics of a lethal, viral, haemorrhagic fever that used the CCR5 as an entry port into the immune system.

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