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The Case of Dr. Gallo

Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer, and The Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery

by Robert Gallo
New Republic/Basic Books, 352 pp., $22.95


As the summer of 1988 began, many of the world’s leading AIDS researchers were gathered in the long twilight of Stockholm for the Fourth International Conference on AIDS—the first in which the virus seemed fully understandable, and perhaps even amenable to treatment. Among the 10,000 scientists wandering about the huge convention center, few could boast of greater achievement than Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute’s laboratory of tumor cell biology. Almost always described as the codiscoverer of the first known AIDS virus or the leading AIDS researcher in the US, Gallo had already received every major award in biomedicine (except the one he coveted most, a Nobel Prize). With his name appearing on more than nine hundred scientific papers, Gallo was one of the most prolifically published scientists alive. Recently he had won a second Lasker Award, the highest prize in American medicine, for his work in “proving that [AIDS] is caused by a retrovirus.”

The Stockholm meeting was a time of particular glory for Gallo, a moment he refers to in his new book as “the best time I can remember in AIDS research.” Thousands of reporters attended the conference and he was the object of unique attention. Voluble, flamboyant, Gallo took to his fame readily. Mobbed like a rock star wherever he went, Gallo permitted reporters from most news organizations three-minute interviews, and dozens lined up for this privilege. For the largest American papers and networks, however, a more intimate setting was provided.

One by one, reporters were ushered into a private room at the convention hall by one of Washington’s most expensive public relations experts. There, after punching the correct security codes into an alarm on a heavy oak door, visitors found Gallo surrounded by what amounted to his scientific consiglieri, the vaccine experts Dani P. Bolognesi, of Duke University, and Maurice Hilleman of the Merck, Sharp & Dohme pharmaceutical company. The men reclined in leather chairs. Crystal decanters, brandy snifters, and espresso cups rested on a nearby counter.

Yet questions had been raised about Robert Gallo for many years, even before April 23, 1984, when the former US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler, announced that Gallo had found the virus that causes AIDS. Almost no mention was made of the French that day, although months earlier they had also claimed the discovery. When it became apparent that the Gallo virus was an uncanny genetic twin to one he had been given for research by the French virologist Luc Montagnier and the Pasteur Institute, suspicions arose that Gallo had either deliberately or mistakenly used a viral strain supplied by Montagnier in the research for which he had claimed credit.

Indeed, the charges became so intense that the French filed a suit against the United States and Gallo challenging the claim of the US to a patent on the first AIDS antibody blood test. In 1987, only a year before the Stockholm Conference, the prime minister of France and the US president signed an agreement which was intended to settle the highly public dispute. Under the terms of the truce, Gallo was permitted to share credit equally with Montagnier for the discovery of the AIDS virus, while the Institut Pasteur would share in the proceeds from the patents.1 To underscore their collegiality, the two scientists published a brief official chronology of their work on AIDS in the British Journal Nature, in which they detailed the key steps each had made toward the discovery. It was the first such negotiated history of a scientific enterprise ever published.2

Few controversies in the modern history of science had appeared so petty and destructive as the battle between Gallo and Montagnier over credit for the discovery of the AIDS virus. Coming as it did in the early stages of an epidemic that was already causing suffering throughout the world, and inspiring panic throughout the United States, the hostility between two leading scientists seemed particularly odious. At the Stockholm conference, however, Gallo told his colleagues and the reporters present that he was eager to put this, the nastiest episode of his volatile career, behind him. Neither he nor Montagnier wanted to become mired in recrimination. The conflict seemed dead. After years of antipathy, the two were working on their first collaborative article, for Scientific American, on the discovery of the AIDS virus, in which they expressed vague optimism about the long-term prospects for a cure.3 In Stockholm as they dined together on salmon and champagne, neither could have suspected that within little more than a year a long, detailed newspaper article in The Chicago Tribune4 would revive the controversy, and that the National Institutes of Health would launch a new investigation through the Office of Scientific Integrity into whether Gallo’s lab had independently discovered the cause of AIDS.

In May, seven years after Margaret Heckler’s first announcement of Gallo’s achievement and months before the final NIH report was due to appear, Gallo published an acknowledgment that he had accidentally used Montagnier’s virus as his own in the research he had conducted. “It is now time for this period of controversy to come to an end and for us all to focus our efforts on ending the [AIDS] pandemic,” Gallo wrote in a letter to Nature.5 Yet within days of its publication, he and Montagnier were again sniping at each other in public. Speaking at a news conference in Paris, Montagnier said that he felt a sense of relief to see the “end of this seven-year quarrel. But I think that at a certain moment, there was a lie.” Gallo immediately denounced any such suggestion.

In Virus Hunting Gallo has produced a lengthy and excruciatingly detailed defense of his controversial career, in which he places himself at the center of one of the most important developments of modern science: the marriage of blood cell biology with engineering techniques which has enabled researchers to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the human immune system. He calls the story of his work “more than that of our lab’s discovery of a disease-causing retrovirus in humans,” first in cancer, then in AIDS. He describes it as an epochal achievement in medical history, for which he himself would like to be remembered as the indispensable force.

It is true that the controversy he has aroused has tended to obscure Gallo’s other contributions, to both cancer research and to AIDS, which have indeed been enormous. In 1976, he and his colleagues discovered one of immunology’s most valuable tools, the growth factor called Interleukin-2, which prompts the body to raise key white blood cells required to fight infections and supports the growth of blood cells in tissue. Interleukin-2 is now also used experimentally to treat certain types of cancer in humans. Since the beginning of his career, Gallo has been preoccupied with studying the role of retroviruses, such as the one that would eventually be found to cause AIDS, in human disease, even when most scientists believed these RNA viruses could cause cancers only in laboratory animals to which the viruses had been genetically transmitted. Gallo persisted in his research, however, becoming the first to find a virus that causes cancer in humans, and as early as 1982 he was among the first to suspect that AIDS was caused by such a retrovirus.

Moreover, his lab was among the first in the world to regularly grow large quantities of the AIDS virus, which is the essential prelude to understanding its genetic structure and to infecting other cells with the virus in order to recreate the process of the disease. Gallo is also the only NIH scientist who runs his own international laboratory meeting each year. The event, held in a Bethesda hotel at the end of August, has gained a reputation as one of the world’s most important annual assemblies for basic science. Even during the height of the feud with Gallo, Montagnier and his colleagues never failed to attend.

Still it is largely for his claims to the discovery of the AIDS virus that Robert Gallo is best known. And his book seems regrettably the product of his obsession with the controversy. Virus Hunting is a bitter account of the research that made him one of the world’s most famous scientists, and brought him his greatest notoriety:

Ours would become the most influential lab in the AIDS field, putting itself out front on the retrovirus theory; we would turn out to be dead right about a retrovirus being the culprit; we would contribute substantially to the identification and culturing of the particular retrovirus that causes AIDS; we would be the first to grow the AIDS virus in sufficient quantities to begin serious work with it; we would be the first to develop a workable blood screening test for AIDS; we would produce much of the information on the basic makeup of the virus; we would provide most of the results that showed the new virus to be the cause of AIDS…. And yet despite all this hard work, by myself and my colleagues, I would find my reputation attacked in the press coverage of a patent suit between the United States and French governments.

It would be difficult to challenge these claims. Over the past twenty years Gallo has established himself as one of the most imaginative US scientists, a man who has courageously pursued goals, most notably the viral causes of cancer, that others openly ridiculed. With his insistence that a retrovirus was the cause of AIDS, and his unique understanding of the techniques required to comprehend such a virus, Gallo and such colleagues of his as Bernard Poiesz at the National Cancer Institute provided much of the preliminary work essential to all further AIDS research. He is a scientist particularly drawn to ideas, with occasionally mixed results. For years, he struggled to understand the nature of a particularly aggressive form of the cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma, common to AIDS patients, with little apparent success. Yet his intuition—which is as important in science as in any other field—has often proved remarkable. He has clearly demonstrated how at least one other virus, HHV6—a human herpes virus that was discovered in his lab in 1986—can enhance the power of HIV to destroy immune cells, a theory that was also at first dismissed by most of his colleagues. And, of course, when AIDS was first reported, many other American scientists took only a distant interest in it. Gallo sensed at once its similarity to the cancer viruses that had preoccupied him for years (although his first assumption that the AIDS virus he called HTLV-3 was related to these viruses proved to be wrong), and he decided at once that his team would work on nothing else.

But his considerable achievements have regularly been undermined by his vanity. He himself acknowledges that his ego has often outraced his accomplishments, and when it came to assigning credit for finding the cause or pursuing the cure of AIDS, Robert Gallo all too frequently dismissed the work of others.

  1. 1

    The Washington Post (April 1, 1987).

  2. 2

    Gallo R.C., Montagnier L., Nature, Vol. 326 (April 2, 1987), p. 435.

  3. 3

    Gallo R.C., Montagnier L, Scientific American, Vol. 259 (October 1988), p. 41.

  4. 4

    The Chicago Tribune published John Crewdson’s 50,000-word article on Gallo’s research efforts, “The Great AIDS Quest,” in a sixteen-page special section on November 19, 1989.

  5. 5

    R.C. Gallo, Nature, Vol. 381 (May 30, 1991), p. 358.

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