French scientist Francoise Barre-Sinoussi almost didn't get the chance to make one of the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century.
She shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with her colleague Luc Montagnier for identifying HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, a plague that has killed about 35 million people since the 1980s.
"Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity," according to the Nobel committee. Because of their discovery, scientists quickly developed a test for the virus. Their discovery also led to the development of drugs that dramatically increased the life expectancy of HIV-positive patients.
But had Barre-Sinoussi listened to one leader at the lab where she would eventually find fame, she may never have been a scientist at all.
Barre-Sinoussi has loved science since she was a girl. But coming from a family of modest means, she decided to forgo a more expensive medical school to take the research route at the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Paris.
But she says she ended up spending little time in class. "This is not the advice I would give young people. University is important," she warns. But she had another interest: She had fallen in love with lab work.
About two years into her studies, she grew tired of the theoretical. She wanted to test her mettle in a lab. "It just was not done at the time, but I wanted to try," she says. After dozens of rejections, she reached the famous virologist Jean-Claude Chermann at the Pasteur Institute. He made her an unusual offer.
"He said, 'OK, if you want to be a volunteer here part time, that would be fine with me,' " she recalls. She loved it immediately. "Suddenly, I understood that's what I really wanted to do."
Her research then focused on the same family of viruses as HIV. She worked to find a connection between retroviruses, cancer and leukemia in animals. Friends shared their class notes so she could study late nights and weekends while spending full days at the lab. Incredibly, she passed her exams with top marks. She stayed at Pasteur and earned her doctorate.
At the end of her Ph.D. program in the late '70s, she made an appointment with another head of the institute. She wanted to know if she could continue working there.
She remembers the indignant tone of the man's response. "He said, 'You are expecting to have a position at Pasteur?' I said, 'That is one of my dreams.' And he said, ' A woman in science, they never do anything. They are only good at caring for the home and babies. Forget this dream.' "
Instead, that conversation left her more determined to succeed. She went to do post-doctoral work at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. About a year later, she won a large grant, which meant a return to Pasteur.
She returned to Montagnier's unit; his lab was one of the few still examining the connection between retroviruses and cancer. It was her dream job, and she's been doing it ever since, eventually becoming the head of the Virology of Retroviruses Unit in 1992. Nearly a decade earlier she performed the experiment that would change her life.
The year that everything changed
A clinician named Willy Rozenbaum delivered a lunchtime lecture at the hospital at Pasteur. He talked about a new mysterious disease that seemed to be rapidly killing his patients. Many were young gay men who should have been at their healthiest. At the end of the lecture, he asked, "Does anyone here deal with retroviruses?" No one responded, said Barre-Sinoussi, who wasn't at the lecture.
Rozenbaum went back to his clinic and complained to a friend that no one at Pasteur could help. His friend corrected him, telling him about the work of Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi.
In December 1982, he met with their team and told them about the disease. Barre-Sinoussi says she and Montagnier had never heard of it then, but they agreed to do some research.
Everything they could observe in the clinic told doctors that the virus was attacking patients' immune cells, leaving them vulnerable to rare cancers and pneumonia. But there was a problem. As the disease progressed, it was hard to find enough CD4 lymphocytes, or T cells, to use in the lab tests. It made isolating the virus extremely difficult.
The following month, a patient agreed to let the researchers do a lymph node biopsy. Barre-Sinoussi tested the sample every two days for activity. The first week there was nothing, but in the second, there was weak enzymatic activity. It started to increase quickly but just as suddenly dropped. The T lymphocytes in the culture started dying.
"That was a really worrying day," Barre-Sinoussi says.
She changed out all the reagent chemicals they were using, but that didn't stop the T cells from dying. The team wasn't able to see the virus; it was getting away.
"So we knew it had to be something else," Barre-Sinoussi says. "We ran across the street to the blood bank and asked if we could get samples for our experiment. We knew it was urgent."
She added lymphocytes from the blood donation, and it worked. The virus was still there. The researchers knew because it started to infect the new lymphocytes from the blood donation and there was enough that a colleague was able to take the first actual image of the virus. The team named it lymphadenopathy-associated virus -- the name human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, came later. The finding changed everything.
"I called my good friend in the United States, my former boss, and I told him what I thought we had and he joked with me and said, 'Throw it all away,' " Barre-Sinoussi remembers. " 'This discovery will change your life forever.' "