Interviewed by Kit Melamed, CBC fifth estate producer, on May 1, 2004 at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. Read Bruce Livesey's controversial Spring 2009 cover story on AIDS research.
Luc Montagnier: We finally came to an agreement. One patent. One common patent. Private patent. Two patents would be fused and American and French patent.
Kit Melamed: There is one common patent.
LM: There are two viruses – HIV 1 and HIV 11 and we discovered both viruses. And what I am talking about is the HIV 1 patent. The HIV 11 patent is owned by the Pasteur Institute.
KM: What is the difference between them?
LM: HIV 11 – is the same virus but different genes and it also causes AIDS. But it is less transmissible, virulent, it explains why we see that virus in the west part of Africa. And it does not have the same spreading epidemical as HIV 1 but it is also an important virus too. If you go to blood donation your bloods will be tested for both HIV 1 and HIV 11 and they are two different tests.
KM: HIV 1 and HIV 11. They are different proteins.
LM: HIV II is patented everywhere by the Pasteur Institute because we were the ones who discovered the virus in 1985 two years after HIV 1.
There were people with AIDS in West Africa who were autoimmune against HIV 1. Was it a different disease than HIV 1 and yes there is another virus close to HIV 1 coming from monkey cirus called which is HIV 11 very different with surface proteins. If you have antibody against that protein not recognized in test for HIV 1.
With HIV 11 there is a southwestern African monkey sutou infected by a virus SIV which is close to HIV 11, we think HIV 11 comes from that virus.
KM: What else has been discovered?
LM: First blood test in 1985. Prevention policies and blood tests. Design of new drugs inhibitors AZT and a whole range of inhibitors. All came from discovery of the virus. To design inhibitors that are used and save lives of many patients.
But In terms of basic knowledge of AIDS there are still many things to know, to learn for which we don’t know very much. One important step we discovered in our laboratory is that the immune system is not depressed by the direct killing of the infected cells but there is another direct effect. The cells don’t die due to virus infection indicating that the virus releases some proteins that kill at a distance uninfected cells. It is another different and complicated mechanism which we are still working on that.
We know the virus, we know everything very well of the virus – we know the chemical science of the disease but we don’t still know how the virus can causes the disease. It is very complicated. It can take ten years. It is not an acute infection. It’s a cunning disease and from that of course it is very important to know from this course of study to design new types of treatments. We know the treatments we are now using are not the cure. They are helping people a lot, they diminish the replication, but there is still part of the virus which resists. What we call the reservoir. The virus is hidden somewhere it is not accessible to treatment…
KM: Is it possible it is something else as well?
LM: Yes, it is something also I consider… I raised the idea that HIV is helped by some microbiological factors. We have some laboratory proof of this. It is more difficult to prove this in the case of the patients. But it is quite possible that the HIV epidemic has been helped by some other infectious factors.
KM: What, like some venereal diseases?
LM: Microbes, bacterial infections.
KM: Bacterial infections that could not be VD?
LM: Well yes, it could be some venereal disease as well. We know that some t. infections help the virus transmission. But we are not only talking about HIV transmission but the disease itself. Your questions was whether the disease itself is caused by HIV plus something else . It’s quite possible.
KM: But if it is quite possible something else, doesn’t that throw everything open and go back to square one?
LM: No, of course have to keep what has been acquired. It is very important to fight the virus which is the main cause. But we could add something to that treatment if we know that other factor because we have to treat that other factor. If it is a microbiological factor we could treat with antibiotics for instance. But maybe not be sensitive to antibiotics, but to something else. We could probably ads more knowledge of treatments by basic research on that disease which we are trying to do
KM: If it could be HIV plus something else, and you are working on treatments for HIV, how do you know that is not undermining a better general treatment for whatever cause X might be?
LM: We know we can improve the patient’s conditions by treatment of the virus, there is no doubt there are facts. People can live with the infection and immune system is partially restored. It is not completely knocked down. So for example people could respond to vaccination that they couldn’t before. We shouldn’t throw that away, but maybe we should add something the idea is to make combination. Like for the virus itself we combined three anti-viral drugs which act synestrically?
KM: SO who is now going after that, looking for mysterious possible cause?
LM: Well, it is not a very popular idea because once people saw the protease therapy they thought the problem was going to be solved. But now they are thinking differently and more people may come to that idea that I have been promoting for 10 years.
KM: Don’t you research anymore?
LM: I am still doing research.
KM: Wouldn’t you want to find out?
LM: I would like to find the alpha and the omega in that field.
KM: You say not popular, why wouldn’t it be? Think everyone and the drug companies would be going after it.
LM: No, because there is a very old concept that started with Pasteur himself which is to say one disease, one infectious agent. So mentally speaking two agents is difficult for people to realize.
Scientists are open to new ideas from time to time but not always. Because when they have found something they want to concentrate on that and keep it on that level. And that has happened with AIDS, AIDS there is 20 years of research and very large breakthrough but also some problems. For example, there have been many attempts at a vaccine and all have failed. So people start thinking why they have failed just now, not before.
KM: How long ago did you think there was something else?
LM: In the laboratory it was easy to show that there was another factor killing the cells. They are called micro plasma, small bacteria. These have been published.
KM: Why haven’t I heard about that?
LM: Because it was said to be a laboratory artifact, what I found in the laboratory was not found in patients. To show it really works in patients takes a lot of studies in Africa. We did some, not enough to convince people. We have a laboratory that is showing clearly up inside the coat of the bacteria and so escape the antibody caused by the vaccine or even escape the treatment.
KM: There might be two other causes
LM: There might be some other factors which we still don’t understand completely. I have an open mind, which is why I actually… I am part of the discovery of HIV but of course I had some luck in this, my colleagues too.
But it is true we were the first because I had n open mind and I was working on something else and as soon had some results with HIV and jumped on it and gave up former research. Other people don’t do that, they stay in one the same line because they have money for that and don’t want to change.
So, again, I think perhaps we are in the same situation where people want to stay with the virus and not switch to something else. I do.
I think we are suffering with complex diseases. AIDS is an example, but there are many others, diseases of the brain and heart and cancer and they are multi-factoral, there are several factors involved including infectious agents. That is what I am interested in, to find the infectious causes. It could be a combination of many infectious causes.
KM: If you are saying there are many causes for some diseases, why in the world are we saying there is only one cause for AIDS and that is it.
LM: Well, because there is no doubt that HIV is the main cause. Without HIV there would be no AIDS epidemic, no doubt. I am not on the side of a few people saying AIDS is not caused by HIV, no. HIV is causing AIDS and without HIV we don’t see an AIDS epidemic. But my question is HIV working alone? Or are there some other factors which increase the virulent affects…. Because we know that HIV was existing before the AIDS epidemic in Africa, without causing a big epidemic. So why did the epidemic started in 70s in Africa and also in North American cities? Why?
KM: Are American do a search for mysterious causes?
LM: There was another group working on the same subject but I think they gave up because they are short of money. It is not a very popular subject.
KM: Why wouldn’t it be popular, if it is funded by governments or by pharmaceutical companies who could make products fort it. Why wouldn’t it be popular?
LM: Because it was felt that the drug discovery against HIV would be sufficient to get rid of the disease. Now we know they won’t succeed. But this is very recent. Realization. For many years people felt making new drugs they would cure the disease. Now I think they are starting to have some doubts about that….
LM: I am very open-minded and I am ready to put down the dogmas. I am not dogmatic. The problem with science, you know, is that it’s like a religion, you know.
Science is a big world. You have thousands and thousands of scientists not working in the world. It is not just a few people working in their laboratories in ivory towers. There are fashions or beliefs which are considered dogmas like in a religion. And you have to believe in it. And if you don’, you are not executed, you are not burnt now but you are put away out of the field. You don’t have money, it is very difficult to exist or persist. So you have to follow the fashion. If not you are in trouble. Like me I have 50 years of research I can say things younger people are not saying.
KM: Should you be leading – publicly leading this questioning, this healthy questioning?
LM: I will continue working to accumulate proofs that I am right. So far I think I am more forced to believe (incoherent)… The problem is I am not completely identified those new forms of viruses or bacterias. So until it is clear for me I am not …
I am in meetings to have a complete permutation I am still waiting.
KM: How can you afford to do it? If you had more money could you move faster?
LM: Of course if I had more money I could work faster. What I have chosen is to set up some biotech companies and tried to get some private funding until I can sufficiently get some public money.
KM: Where is Dr. Gallo on this issue of whether there are other causes?
LM: No, Dr. Gallo is in the right line, general beliefs that HIV is caused by AIDS period.
KM: That’s fascinating that you both share this patent…
LM: Because the patient is about the virus and we agree on the virus.
KM: But afterwards you have gone different routes.
LM: Yes, well, this is science. If everybody followed along the same lines we won’t be innovative. We have to create. Gallo has taken different ways and sometimes we agree, most of the time we agree, we have a common project on a vaccine.
KM: But you have almost this one-foot in, this one foot out, you’re working on this new vaccine but one other hand if you could find other causes you would stop work on this vaccine and start on something else.
LM: No, they are complimentary. The vaccine against HIV will happen anyway and the vaccine against something else will also help. So there might be a combination of fixes.
KM: Explain to me why if science is like a religion and people follow conventional logic that makes sense for me, but why aren’t drug companies knocking down your door and saying listen if you can come up with something else that we can make a product for, go for it.
LM: Well the pharmaceutical world is worse than the academic world in that Big Pharma take decision to take that direction and they cannot change. It is like a high-speed train. You cannot brake or stop. For instance, some companies make a vaccine in a classical way and that vaccine is a failure but they continue to spend 100s of millions of dollars on that. And I was a consultant with one of these companies in the very beginning but I was never consulted. SO I said to CEO if you don’t consult with me why do you pay a consultant fee. He cancelled the consulting agreement. The new things come from small companies; they are more free to change directions. I think the solution will come from small biotech companies.
I was saying that research is research don’t know outcome of something. I will not blame them for pursuing it at some point have to stop. I could have saved them a lot of time and money.
KM: Take the drug mixture for a child not want to in Toronto do harm than good. Was she crazy for thinking like that?
LM: No, I am not saying there is another cause, I am saying there might be an additional factor. So fighting HIV is very key and what has been found in regards to HIV transmission from mother to child is that if you treat this before the development it will decrease the transmission of virus to the child. The problem is we are using inhibitors that are toxic. There are two candidates AZT and nevirapin. And people tend to use more neverapin than AZT because AZT has some side effects. AZT is not 100% specific for that enzyme. It also works on cellular enzymes. And this could have long-term effect on the child. So my concern was that AZT treatment for a short term have side effect on the life of child or descendants. It is a real problem because those drugs have toxic effects and the long-term toxicity we don’t know.
KM: I have heard of some Toronto researchers who believe syphilis might be involved. Have you heard about that?
LM: I receive all of these. People know I have an open mind and people send me their own ideas and one was syphilis could be a factor that helped the transmission of HIV to AIDS. (he shrugs). Again, it does not have an epidemiological solid basis but people are reporting that syphilis tests are not very accurate. So if you used more accurate tests you would see syphilis all the time. I cannot comment on this I am not an expert on syphilis testing.
But what we can say now that there is molecular means ready to investigate that again, not by the antibody test but by looking at the sequence, the DNA sequencing and see if we can find that. That could be easy to do.
KM: That’s one area, the syphilis area is one area that should be followed up?
LM: Since we have the tools now, the molecular testing to find any type of germs, bacteria, we could investigate this at one time. Have DNA, we can screen it against all sequence we know including syphilis. The problem is find the causal relationship which is not obvious because we are all affected by bacteria so we have to distinguish between the background and the real cause. That is more difficult.
AIDS is a transmissible disease, something which transmits AIDS form one person to another. My position is that HIV is the main cause of AIDS no doubt and what has been done against it is right and with some success, but if you want to eradicate the disease you have to consider helping factors.
KM: And that, as you say, takes you outside the church.
LM: Outside the church. I am a heretic.
KM: Do you feel like one?
LM: It is an idea based on some facts and I am pretty sure I am right. I haven’t finished that work and I am not claiming… Pasteur Institute – didn’t like my ideas.