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`We Are All Rushing ... People Are Still Dying'

Aids At 25

June 05, 2006|Jia-Rui Chong

PARIS — Francoise Barre-Sinoussi was a research associate at the Pasteur Institute in Paris when she was the first to detect the human immunodeficiency virus in 1983. She has studied the virus ever since. Barre-Sinoussi, 58, is now head of one of the institute's retroviral research groups.


PARIS -- The retroviral group begins gathering at 10 a.m. for its usual Friday meeting. Up on the screen is a picture of a spiky AIDS virus surrounded by immune cells.

Barre-Sinoussi looks on as one researcher presents the results of a study of specific immune cells that are abundant in some patients who seem to be able to control their infections.

Everyone seems pleased.

Then the questions begin. Is it really these cells that are at work? Why are these cells so active only in some patients? Why did you choose such a dark background for your charts?

There are always questions.

Barre-Sinoussi takes notes, twiddles her pen and occasionally pops up her head to ask a question.

"For the moment, that's interesting," she says of the study, "but it still needs to be strengthened."

She has been working on retroviruses, the class of viruses that include HIV, for 35 years. The lab she worked in when she first detected the AIDS virus in 1983 is just across the hall from her office.

In the early days, she, like researchers everywhere, worked feverishly on a vaccine to prevent infection. But after five years, she realized there were still too many questions about how the virus crippled immune defenses.

"If we want to develop a vaccine, we need to know better what's happening very early on after infection," she says.

Barre-Sinoussi went back to basic research on how the virus takes hold in the body.

She starts each day at 7:30 a.m. and works until late at night, answering a flood of e-mail messages, correcting academic papers, returning phone calls, and pondering the projects of the 20 scientists and technicians in her group. A cup of coffee is always nearby.

She says she feels as if she has been rushing since the day she first detected the virus. "But I'm not rushing alone today," she adds. "We are all rushing because ... people are still dying," particularly in the developing world.

Researchers in the retroviral group like to poke fun at their workaholic leader. On the wall is a sheet of paper with pictures of Barre-Sinoussi's head. A cartoon bubble in French sprouts from her mouth: "Vacations? Grrrr!"

Jia-Rui Chong

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