Laureate of the 2013 Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences
Beyond HIV Treatment: Eradicating HIV Persistence To Cure AIDS
1.1 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses worldwide in 2015. In spite of tremendous improvements, tritherapy stays powerless to completely eradicate the epidemic. For those who have access to tritherapy, lifelong treatment must be followed as any interruption in its course means a rebound from the dormant virus.
Monsef Benkirane has been investigating HIV with his Montpellier team at the Institute of Human Genetics since 1998. They aim to understand how HIV persists in the body and defies advanced treatments. The Bettencourt Schueller Foundation supports their research project for modeling and eradicating HIV latency.
Long lived viral reservoirs have been identified as the main cause of HIV latency and viral rebound. Those reservoirs are composed of a few infected host cells that escaped both the tritherapy and the patient’s immune system. Dr. Benkirane intends to identify markers for tracking and targeting those cells in patients. As an expert in viral genetics and molecular biology, he is especially equipped to elucidate how the virus hides, maintains itself in a dormant state and reactivates when an opportunity arises. Treatments targeting the mechanisms underlying those processes could assist with completely eradicating HIV from the body of patients.
Monsef Benkirane developed interest for virus-host interactions during his graduate years. His Ph.D. work at the Aix-Marseille University demonstrated that HIV binding to CD4+ T helper white blood cells is crucial for infection. During that initial step, Dr. Benkirane demonstrated that the virus activates mechanisms in the white blood cells that will help it hijack their replication machinery in the future. In addition, while still a graduate student, Dr. Benkirane improved “Alu PCR”, a molecular biology technique. As he modified it for the exploration of viral gene integration within the host chromosomes, he opened a new way into a previously under-researched field.
Monsef Benkirane followed with a postdoctoral internship under supervision of Dr. Kuan Teh Jeang. He then published pioneering work about the activation mechanisms of viral promoters, DNA sequences that are indispensable for HIV protein replication.
Since starting his own laboratory at the Institute of Human Genetics in Montpellier, he has continued deciphering the molecular mechanisms of AIDS and has broadened his research focus to the fundamental cellular mechanisms that occur in all virus infections.
- 1994Ph.D. in Immunology, Aix-Marseille University (France)
- 1994 - 1997Postdoctoral Internship, Molecular Virology Laboratory, NIAID, NIH, Bethesda (USA)
- 1997Researcher, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Institute of Human Genetics, Montpellier (France)
- 2003Young Investigator Award, Human Frontier Science Program
- 2007Senior Researcher, Head of the Laboratory of Molecular Virology, Institute of Human Genetics, Montpellier (France)
- 2010Advanced Grant, European Research Council
- 2012European Molecular Biology Organization member
- 2012American Academy of Microbiology member
- 2012Jaffé Prize, French Academy of Sciences
- 2013Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences, Bettencourt Schueller Foundation