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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - French scientist with ties to Cambodia wins Nobel Prize

French scientist with ties to Cambodia wins Nobel Prize

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Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, who helped discover HIV, continues to research the epidemic's impact on the Kingdom


A nobel cause

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi’s work with her colleague Luc Montagnier in the early 1980s made it possible to study the virus closely and identify important details on how HIV attacks the immune system. The Nobel Assembly in its citation said their discovery paved the way for scientists to figure out ways to diagnose infected people and to screen blood for HIV, which has limited spread of the epidemic and helped scientists develop anti-HIV drugs. The Nobel stamp comes 25 years after Barre-Sinoussi and her colleagues at the French Pasteur Institute made the finding, officially ending a prolonged dispute over whom to credit for “discovering” HIV. Still based in the Pasteur Institute, Barre-Sinoussi has promoted the global integration of HIV research and initiatives.

Camilla Bjerrekaer

Nobel Medicine Prize winner Francoise Barre-Sinoussi at the Ministry of Health on Tuesday.

FRANCOISE Barre-Sinoussi, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday for her work towards discovering HIV, said Cambodia - one of the region's countries worst-struck by the virus - needs to do more to assess the socio-economic impacts of HIV/Aids, which are particularly devastating in poor nations.

"People are dying at the age when they are working and, of course, this has a large impact on the economy," she said during a visit to the country.

"In Cambodia we didn't yet develop any social-economic research program; that might be something we need to seek in the future," the 61-year-old added.

The announcement of Barre-Sinoussi's award came as she was in Phnom Penh for one of her regular trips to work with local medical researchers.

"Cambodia and France have a long-term relationship with health research," she told reporters Tuesday while meeting with the French Ambassador Jean-Francois Desmazieres and Cambodian Health Minister Mam Bunheng at the Ministry of Health.  

During her most recent trip, Barre-Sinoussi was working for France's ANRS Aids research agency on a program investigating HIV co-infections with tuberculosis.

She noted the difficulty of treating HIV in an environment where multiple diseases are common, referring specifically to the struggles of her Cambodian colleagues in treating patients infected with both HIV and tuberculosis.

"When they are treated with HIV antiretroviral treatment, a percentage of them is dying. They are doing better for HIV infection but they reactivate TB. It is what we call paradoxical reaction," she said. "We don't understand why, but it's a real problem." 

Barre-Sinoussi was one of the three European scientists who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Along with her colleague Luc Montagnier, she was cited for identifying the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, that causes Aids by destroying immune cells, a breakthrough that paved the way for doctors to fight the deadly disease. Germany's Harald zur Hausen was awarded for finding human papilloma viruses, HPV, that cause cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women.

There is not enough money in aids research and we need to

bring in new blooD, especially young researchers.

Barre-Sinoussi shared half of the US$1.4 million prize with her colleague, while the German doctor received the other half.

In a written statement, International Aids Society executive director said the French pair's discovery "changed the course of medical history".
Dedicated to research

Since the discovery in the early 1980s, the French scientist has dedicated her career to research on the virus and in 1988 set up her own lab at the Pasteur Institute in Paris to experiment with various investigative techniques.

"We knew it was an important discovery but ... we didn't realise the impact of the epidemic on the African continent," AFP reported her as saying Monday.

Aids has claimed more than 25 million lives since it first came to prominence in 1981. Today, around 33 million people are living with HIV. "There is not enough money in Aids research, and we need to bring in new blood, especially young researchers who also want to get involved and bring in new ideas, especially in the field of vaccines, which so far has been a failure," she said. 

An aggressive condom and sex-education campaign is believed to have helped reduce Cambodia's overall HIV prevalence to 0.9 percent, compared its 1997 rate of 3.7 percent, the highest in Southeast Asia.

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