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Bellini, Francesco

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Francesco Bellini

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Francesco Bellini

(1947 - )
Born in Italy
Year of Discovery: 1989

f_bellini_business_gnu_pdThis Scientist Drastically Improved AIDS Treatment

Francesco Bellini was born in Italy in 1947. When he was just 21, he immigrated to Montreal.  It was a shock to his system, as the welcoming warmth of the Mediterranean gave way to the harsh realities of frigid winters. But Bellini was not afraid of taking risks and was determined to make things work; this trait served him well throughout his career. He earned a doctorate in organic chemistry and began working as a researcher for Ayerst Laboratories. When, in 1984, Ayerst relocated its operation to the United States, Bellini was asked to join them. But, Bellini had plans of his own and turned down the lucrative offer. Bellini longed to start his own company and, when he accepted a position with a research company associated with the University of Quebec, the pieces began to fall into place. Here he met two fellow researchers, Bernard Belleau and Gervais Dionne, with whom he found a common interest. The trio formed their own drug-development company and began work on the anti-AIDS drug 3TC. The drug was a major success, proving to be effective in fighting AIDS and having fewer side effects than the then current treatment, AZT. The introduction of 3TC was a significant advance in the fight against AIDS, and is credited with saving over 2 million lives.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) originated in West Africa, with the first confirmed case being recorded in 1959. The virus slowly spread across Africa and then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, exploded throughout other parts of the world. HIV is the underlying cause of AIDS, a disease that attacks the immune system, and is passed from person to person through contact with bodily fluids. As AIDS progresses, individuals become less able to ward off infections and become ill with a variety of diseases that a person with a normal immune system would not have any trouble fighting. Health officials initially thought the disease was limited to homosexual men living in large metropolitan areas. But, they quickly discovered that both hemophiliacs and heterosexual intravenous drug users were also being infected. A French physician, Luc Montagnier, initially discovered that the underlying cause of AIDS was a retrovirus, a virus capable of reprogramming the body with a defective genetic code. This was a major breakthrough, allowing other scientists to develop treatments, and AZT became the first drug approved to fight AIDS.

Bellini is by nature a risk taker. Even today, as he reflects on his native Italy, he feels the Italian youth are too concerned with security and safety. This willingness to take risks, and his deep expertise in chemistry, are the perfect combination for a drug researcher. Nowhere are the risks higher - or the rewards more meaningful. So, it seemed natural to team with Belleau and Dionne to see if they could make a go of it. Belleau had developed a chemical structure to fight against AIDS. The trio took this compound and refined it, eventually producing the drug 3TC. At the time, AZT was the only available treatment for AIDS. But over 90 percent of those patients treated with AZT developed a resistance to it within the first year of treatment - and experienced significant damage to their immune systems. Bellini and his team wanted to develop a treatment that would fight AIDS, but avoid the side effects of severe pain, bone marrow destruction, and anemia. They succeeded with the unique 3TC treatment. 3TC works by preventing the HIV retrovirus from altering the cell's genetic structure. This retards the spread of AIDS within the body, as new cells are no longer susceptible. Though 3TC doesn't repair the damage already done to existing cells, it offers widespread protection to the remaining uninfected cells. Best of all, it achieves this without the debilitating side effects patients had previously experienced. 3TC proved to be even more effective when combined with low doses of AZT. This combination was the first "cocktail" treatment to fight against AIDS.

Bellini is a great admirer of Albert Einstein, and had a large image of the physicist hanging above his desk when he was working on 3TC. Below the photograph was this quote from Einstein: "Great Spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." Perhaps it was this attitude, toward all of life's obstacles, which gave Bellini the courage to resist choosing the safest paths and be a risk taker.

Introduction by Tim Anderson


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Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Key Contributors
Quotes by the Scientist
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Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
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Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
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Wikipedia entry:

Financial Post Magazine article on Bellini:

Italy Global Nation article on Bellini:

Maclean's Magazine article on Bellini:

McGill University press release about Dr. Bellini's donation to the university:

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research


Key Contributors

The Team
Explore other scientists who furthered this lifesaving advance.
Lifesavers: AIDS
Acquired Immune
Deficiency Syndrome
Luc Montagnier
Developed the blood test to detect HIV, the underlying cause of AIDS.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi
A retrovirus expert, she was the first to isolate the AIDS virus.
Bernard Belleau
Co-developed the effective AIDS drug 3TC, which had fewer side effects than AZT.
Gervais Dionne
Co-developed the effective AIDS drug 3TC, which had fewer side effects than AZT.
Nghe Nguyen-Ga
Co-developed the effective AIDS drug 3TC, which had fewer side effects than AZT.

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist


Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist



Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science