Heroes of Progress: Francoise Barre-Sinoussi

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, a French virologist who discovered that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Barre-Sinoussi’s discovery has led to the development of medical treatments that slow the progression of HIV and decrease the risk of HIV's transmission.

Barre-Sinoussi was born July 30, 1947 in Paris, France. From an early age, Barre-Sinoussi showed an interest in science and decided to continue her passion for knowledge at the University of Paris. Initially Barre-Sinoussi wanted to study medicine, but as she came from a humble background, she decided to be pragmatic and study natural science. Natural science was a shorter course than a medical degree, thus saving her family money in tuition and boarding fees.

After studying at the University of Paris for a couple of years, Barre-Sinoussi began working part-time at the Pasteur Institute – a Parisian research center focusing on the study of biology, diseases and vaccines. She soon began working full-time at that institute and would only attend the university to take her exams. Barre-Sinoussi received her PhD in 1975 and after a brief internship in the United States she began working on a group of viruses, known as retroviruses.

During the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, scientists were perplexed as to what was causing the outbreak of the disease and Barre-Sinoussi decided to use her knowledge of retroviruses to experiment on AIDS. In 1983, Barre-Sinoussi and her colleague Luc Montaigner made the groundbreaking discovery that HIV is the cause of AIDS. 

Barre-Sinoussi’s discovery led to many medical breakthroughs that have helped in the fight against AIDS, including numerous HIV testing and diagnosis technologies, and lifesaving antiretroviral therapy.

In 1988, Barre-Sinoussi took charge of her own laboratory at the Pasteur Institute and began intensive research trying to create a HIV vaccine. Although no vaccine has been discovered, her team continues to research different mechanisms to protect people against HIV infections.

In 2008, Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in discovering HIV. Barre-Sinoussi has received a number of awards and honorary doctorates. In 2006, she was named Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur - France’s highest order of merit. Between 2012 and 2016, Barre-Sinoussi served as the President for the International AIDS Society. She retired from active research in 2017.

As HumanProgress.org has noted before, thanks to the discovery of HIV, and creation of different treatments, humanity is now winning the war on AIDS. Since the peak of the HIV pandemic in the mid-2000s, when some 1.9 million people died of AIDS each year, less than one million people died from the sickness in 2017. New infections are also down. In the mid-1990s, there were 3.4 million new HIV infections each year but in 2017, there were only 1.8 million new HIV infections. That’s a decline of 47 percent.

Without the contributions of Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, humanity’s crusade against AIDS would not be as advanced or successful as it is today, and millions more people would be dying from the virus each year.

About the Author

Alexander C. R. Hammond is a researcher at a Washington DC think tank.