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Scientist Luc Montagnier, who discovered the virus that causes AIDS, is dead at 89


The scientist who discovered the virus that causes AIDS has died. Luc Montagnier was 89. His key contribution came at a time when AIDS was mysterious and uniformly deadly, and it embroiled him in a protracted dispute over who deserved credit for the discovery. Richard Harris has our story.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: French virologist Luc Montagnier was studying the role of viruses in causing cancer back in the early 1980s. When AIDS emerged, colleagues asked him to turn his attention to the terrifying disease. Montagnier and his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute ended up isolating a virus from the lymph nodes of a man with AIDS.


LUC MONTAGNIER: So clearly, it was a new virus, and the first description of this virus was done in May 1983.

HARRIS: Nobody was sure at the time it was actually the cause of AIDS. And when Robert Gallo at the National Institutes of Health did the legwork that made the case for that in 1984, the U.S. government basically took credit for discovering the AIDS virus.


SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Also tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, a possible AIDS breakthrough - scientists believe they found a virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

HARRIS: At a press conference in Washington, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler touted Gallo's work in identifying a virus and the means to detect it as the groundbreaking discoveries.


MARGARET HECKLER: With discovery of both the virus and this new process, we now have a blood test for AIDS, which we hope can be widely available within about six months.

HARRIS: Indeed, the discoveries led to a patented blood test - but also to a great deal of controversy. Jon Cohen, an author and reporter at Science Magazine, has written about the story.

JON COHEN: Politics get very ugly. In part, it is a credit battle, but at the center of the credit battle is a dispute over the patents.

HARRIS: The United States and French government were locked in a dispute about who deserved the profits from the lucrative blood tests.

COHEN: The fight becomes so heated that the president of France, Jacques Chirac, and the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, with the help of Jonas Salk, the developer of the first polio vaccine that comes to market, broker a peace deal. They come up with a peace treaty that we're going to share credit and we're going to share the royalties. And the peace treaty calls Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier the co-discoverers of HIV.

HARRIS: While that dispute simmered, medical researchers raced ahead. They developed an effective treatment for HIV within about a decade based on knowledge of the virus. And gradually, the question of scientific credit settled on this narrative. Montagnier and his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute had indeed discovered the virus, and Gallo had proved that it was the cause, laying the groundwork for tests and drugs.

In October 2008, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine finally honored AIDS pioneers - at least some of them.


JAN ANDERSSON: Twenty-five years have passed since the discovery, and that can tell something about how difficult it is to find out who really has done the important discoveries.

HARRIS: Jan Andersson and his colleagues on the Nobel committee named Luc Montagnier and a French colleague, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi.


ANDERSSON: They made the discovery. They provided the virus to the rest of the society.

HARRIS: Robert Gallo did not share in the honor. Montagnier kept his hand in AIDS research after his discovery, but nothing else he did came remotely close to matching that original contribution. During his Nobel lecture, he noted that the transformative drugs that saved so many lives did so mostly in the wealthy nations of the world.


MONTAGNIER: AIDS is mostly a disease of the poor countries in which there are many factors favoring the transmission of the virus.

HARRIS: He dreamed of a vaccine that could be a cheap and effective treatment, if not a way to prevent the disease to begin with. But that did not come to pass in his lifetime. Instead, he spent some of his waning years seduced by what many scientists regard as pseudoscience - the idea that water can store a memory of molecules that had been dissolved in it. It was a dissonant note in an otherwise noteworthy career.

FLORIDO: Richard Harris on the life of scientist Luc Montagnier.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACO'S "SATIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.