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Bernard Belleau

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Bernard Belleau

(March 15, 1925 - September 4, 1989)
Born in Canada
Year of Discovery: 1989

This Scientist Invents New AIDS Drug With Far Fewer Side Effects

Belleau was both a scientist and a pragmatist. He was a brilliant thinker and always on the leading edge of scientific theory. His insight into the workings of drugs on the molecular level laid the groundwork for both his own research and for the research of other scientists. But theory was not enough to satisfy Belleau. He was intent on seeing his research yield practical results - that meant real drugs helping real patients. So, when he turned his attention to the plight of AIDS sufferers, he was determined to develop a drug that was superior to AZT, the current drug used to treat AIDS in the 1980s. Belleau had years of experience, both in Canada and the United States, to bring to bear on the development of the new drug. He also enlisted the help of two colleagues, Francesco Bellini and Gervais Dionne, to help with the process. The trio formed their own drug-development company and began work on the anti-AIDS drug, which they called 3TC. Its technical name is 2,3 dideoxy – 3-thiacytidine .  For convenience sake, it is referred to as 3TC.  The drug was a major success, proving to be effective in fighting AIDS and having fewer side effects than 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) was first found 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 fall prey to a variety of diseases that would fought off easily with a normal immune system. 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.

Belleau had developed a chemical structure to fight against AIDS, and the trio took this compound and refined it. The result was the drug 3TC. With AZT, over 90 percent of patients treated with it developed resistance within the first year of treatment - and experienced significant damage to their immune systems. Belleau and his colleagues 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 cells’ genetic structure. This slows 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.

Though Belleau is today most widely know for his development of the anti-AIDS drug 3TC, he first grabbed international attention for the development of a pain reliever. In the mid-1970s, Belleau developed a morphine substitute known as Butorphanol, a pain reliever with far fewer side effects. Butorphanol was found to have over five times the potency of morphine. Today, Butorphanol is often used to relieve post-surgical pain and in the management of migraine headaches.


Introduction by Tim Anderson




Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Key Contributors
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Similar Scientists
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

Wikipedia entry:

The McLaughlin Medal mini-biography:

Les Prix du Québec biography:

McGill University announcement of Dr. Belleau's death:

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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.
Gervais Dionne
Co-developed the effective AIDS drug 3TC, which had fewer side effects than AZT.
Francesco Bellini
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


Similar Scientists

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Heroes in Their Sixties When They Made Discovery

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Vasilii Kolesov (60)

Pioneer in coronary bypass surgery

First to use sutures in coronary artery bypass surgery.

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John Enders(61)

Developed the polio vaccine

Enders revolutionized virology, even though he began his work in this area after the age of fifty.

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Louis Pasteur(63)

Pasteur was responsible for several major scientific discoveries

A multi-faceted genius who proved germ theory; founder of vaccination, microbiology, and pasteurization.

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Bernard Belleau(64)

Invented the anti-AIDS drug, 3TC

Invented new AIDS drug with far fewer side effects.

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Lawrence Craven(67)

Used aspirin to prevent heart attacks

Showed aspirin busts blood clots and saves lives.

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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



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