A fledgling AIDS research centre in Cameroon, already struggling to find a scientific leader, is now facing insurrection from an unlikely quarter: a group of 35 Nobel prizewinners.
The laureates are calling for the centre’s interim scientific director, fellow prizewinner Luc Montagnier, to be removed from the part-time post. Observers say that unless the leadership crisis is resolved quickly and decisively, it could harm the prospects of the Chantal Biya International Reference Centre (CIRCB) in Yaoundé.
The centre has a comprehensive AIDS research and health-care programme, in particular testing and treating newborn babies to reduce maternal transmission of HIV. It is the only research institution in central Africa with the technology and expertise to monitor people with HIV thoroughly, and one of the few African sources of hard data about the spread of the disease. It has an annual budget of about US$1 million, an array of international collaborations and around 20 local staff members, most of whom trained abroad.
It was gathered that the Nobel laureates wrote on 9 June to Paul Biya, president of Cameroon, asking him to reconsider Montagnier’s appointment. Montagnier, head of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention in Paris, shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering HIV.
The laureates argue that his embrace of theories that are far from the scientific mainstream, as well as what they claim are anti-vaccination views, risk hurting the CIRCB’s research, health-care programme and reputation. Montagnier has suggested, for example, that water can retain a ‘memory’ of pathogens that are no longer present1; that the DNA sequences of pathogens emit electromagnetic waves that could be used to diagnose disease2, 3; and that stimulating the immune system with antioxidants and nutritional supplements may help people to fight off AIDS4.
The letter was coordinated by Richard Roberts, a Nobel-prizewinning molecular biologist and chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts, who also wrote personally to Biya on 4 June, to resign from the CIRCB’s scientific board. Roberts says he is concerned that Montagnier plans to pursue his unorthodox research at the centre. Several other board members have also resigned.
Robert Gallo, head of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who had battled with Montagnier over which of them had discovered HIV, has also entered the fray. On 4 June, Gallo wrote to Biya expressing concerns similar to those of the Nobel laureates and informing Biya that his institute, a founding sponsor of the CIRCB, was immediately severing its links with the centre.
Montagnier deplores what he describes as “ad hominem attacks” and “plain lies”, and says that there is an “ignominious campaign” against him and his group. He says that history is full of pioneers whose ideas were at first given a chilly reception by a conservative research community. “I believe this is happening again to me, and it is very sad that it involves Nobel Prize laureates attacking a fellow laureate,” he says.
The last straw for Montagnier’s critics seems to have been his appearance in May alongside vaccine sceptics at a conference in Chicago, Illinois, organized by US patient-advocacy groups AutismOne and Generation Rescue. Montagnier’s talk, on his hypothesis that bacterial infections may be one of many causes of autism spectrum disorder, states: “There is in the blood of most autistic children — but not in healthy children — DNA sequences that emit, in certain conditions, electromagnetic waves.”
Montagnier defends his research, pointing out that some clinicians have observed improvements in symptoms of autism after long-term treatment with antibiotics. He says that he has never argued that vaccination could cause autism. “Many parents have observed a temporal association, which does not mean causation, between a vaccination and the appearance of autism symptoms,” he says. “Presumably vaccination, especially against multiple antigens, could be a trigger of a pre-existing pathological situation in some children.”
The CIRCB, founded in 2006, is named after President Biya’s wife, who has championed efforts to fight AIDS in Africa. Montagnier’s AIDS foundation was a founding partner; Montagnier is also president of the now-defunct scientific advisory board, and vice-president of the management board.