The French Virus
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a similar search for a retroviral cause of AIDS was proceeding according to different premises. In Paris, a group of physicians had been meeting informally to discuss the epidemic, and one of them, an immunologist named Jacques Leibowitch, who was familiar with Gallo's work on HTLV, had become convinced that a retrovirus was the cause. Skeptical of arguments about poppers and promiscuity, Leibowitch specifically hoped to demonstrate "that the cause of AIDS was not homosexually related." But neither Leibowitch nor any of his colleagues knew how to look for a retrovirus, so they set out to enlist the support of Luc Montagnier, chief of viral oncology at the famous Pasteur Institute, a private, nonprofit research institution founded by Louis Pasteur in 1887.
The physicians' group had a hunch that if a virus was causing the depletion of T cells, then there might be higher levels of virus present in people who were at an earlier stage of illness, before most of their T cells had been killed off. So they sent Montagnier samples of lymph tissue from a gay male patient with "lymphadenopathy syndrome"—a
condition of chronically swollen lymph glands, increasingly prevalent among gay men and believed by many to be a precursor to AIDS. Montagnier's research team extracted T cells from the tissue and put them in an incubator with nutrients, hoping to grow a virus. When tests showed the presence of reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that is the distinctive marker of retroviruses, they knew they had found something. The reverse transcriptase activity rose and then fell—a sign that the virus was killing its host cells—but by adding fresh cells from new sources, the French researchers were able to maintain the culture. With the aid of electron microscopy, the Pasteur group also succeeded in photographing viral particles.
When Montagnier contacted Gallo in early 1982 and informed him of his findings, Gallo encouraged him to submit his paper to Science , so that Gallo's, Essex's, and Montagnier's papers could all appear together. Since Science allows its authors to suggest appropriate peer reviewers, Gallo told Montagnier he would be happy to review the Pasteur Institute;s findings for the magazine. In his comments to Science , Gallo urged rapid publication, stressing the importance of Montagnier's work. But in addition, as reported John Crewdson has described in a highly critical exposé of Gallo's work, Gallo offered to write the abstract, which Montagnier had neglected to include. Gallo's abstract identified the French virus as a "C-type retrovirus," similar to Gallo's HTLV. Gallo had effectively enlisted the Pasteur researchers behind his own HTLV.
The papers appeared in Science in May 1983, where, as Crewdson noted, they "made a considerable splash." But few people paid much attention to Montagnier's paper, which followed the other three in the pages of Science ; it appeared simply to confirm the findings of the American researchers. As Jay Levy, a virologist at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School (UCSF), who had also embarked on a search for a retroviral causative agent, later recalled, "The write-up in the Science papers sounded like the French virus and the Gallo virus were the same."
But Montagnier and his collaborators suspected otherwise. Their photographs didn't especially resemble HTLV. And when they exposed their virus to HTLV antibodies, they didn't observe any "cross-reaction"—as they should have, if the virus were really a close cousin of HTLV. Most crucially, their virus killed T cells in the test tube. HTLV caused its host cells to multiply wildly—the hallmark of cancer. Of course, the French had no actual proof at this point that the virus
they had found was indeed the cause of AIDS. But they were increasingly convinced that theirs was a previously undiscovered retrovirus, not HTLV or even a member of the same family; and they set out to demonstrate its causal relationship to the epidemic.
By fall 1983, at the virology conference held each September in Cold Springs Harbor, New York, Montagnier could report finding his virus—which he was now calling "LAV," or lymphadenopathy-associated virus—in about 60 percent of patients with lymphadenopathy syndrome and 20 percent of those with AIDS. None of these patients appeared to be infected with HTLV. At the conference, Gallo angrily disputed Montagnier's findings, claiming that the French measurements had to be in error. (Much later, Gallo would write: "I have come increasingly to regret that the tone or spirit of my questioning that day was too aggressive and therefore misunderstood.") What Gallo did not mention to the conference-goers was that, despite his own lab's best efforts, he and his associates had been unsuccessful in finding HTLV in the majority of samples from AIDS patients that they had been studying over the past several months.