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.
Virus Hunting is Gallo’s feverish attempt to defend a reputation that has fallen under legal, scientific, and political attack.6 It is a scientific Six Crises, casting its author as a dedicated man in a wicked time, a time in which “the motives of scientists working for the government-supported NIH seemed to be automatically suspect,” and in which his profession has degenerated as it has become more and more entangled in bureaucracy and suspicion. “My main intent in telling this story has been to portray the scientific process as it goes in our time.”
But unlike The Double Helix, James Watson’s candid and idiosyncratic memoir of the raw competitiveness of the collaborative work by which a major scientific discovery was made, Gallo’s book centers almost entirely upon himself. Born in the “ethnically diverse, working-class New England city of Waterbury, Connecticut,” although “my part of town was not the Italian section,” Gallo describes an American dream childhood, with fishing and swimming, and baseball and basketball, and “in time, dating.” But misfortune intervened early and changed his life, as anyone who has ever interviewed him learns at once. His vocation, he writes, was inspired by his sister Judith, whose death of leukemia at age six presented Gallo with what remains “the most powerful and frightening demon” of his life. Judith was one of the first children in New England to receive chemotherapy, and her treatment introduced Gallo to a world he had never known existed.
In the midst of the horror of that experience there would also be some positive influences for me. Increasingly, I saw science as another kind of religion, certainly one that would yield more predictable results if one served it faithfully.
He became an initiate in the service of science. First at Providence College and then at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Gallo found that he loved research but that he had little interest in treating patients. In Philadelphia he mostly skipped his anatomy and histology classes, instead studying with a blood specialist named Alan Erslev, learning about the qualities and diseases of blood cells. In 1961, he conducted his first major experiment, an attempt to sort out the lineage of certain bone marrow cells.
I did all my preparations carefully, and then went over them to make sure everything was right. After a while I realized that I was compulsively, obsessively, endlessly spending my time converting Erslev’s laboratory into a glass menagerie of bottle after bottle of sugar and albumin solutions that varied in their concentrations in minuscule, insignificant amounts. I could not get myself to conduct the actual experiment. My chief problem, though I could not face it at the time, was fear—fear of failure, fear of exposure, fear that I was not good enough, not smart enough, not trained enough technically.
The research went nowhere. But for Gallo, the story was self-justifying. “Now, almost thirty years later, no one has yet succeeded in doing what I tried and failed to accomplish,…namely, physical separation of all the cells of the bone marrow.”
Soon afterward, Gallo moved to the University of Chicago for a year of postdoctoral study, and then to the NIH where in 1965 many bright young scientists found an honorable way to serve the country while avoiding the draft. It was a time when doctors “idealized academic research,” according to Gallo, “a state of mind that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur.”
Gallo was briefly assigned to take care of pediatric leukemia patients, a task he found painful because of its association with the death of his sister. This period of his life was “my last direct involvement with clinical medicine.” He was drawn to the study of the abnormal cells that caused leukemia and lymphomas, first in the National Cancer Institute’s laboratory of physiology and then at the laboratory of tumor cell biology when it started in 1971.
In the mid-1970s, the discovery of Interleukin-2 permitted Gallo to develop cell lines in which to study retroviruses. Cell lines, colonies of cells which are descended from a common ancestor and grow indefinitely in the laboratory, have been essential to the development of modern molecular biology. Fed by nutrient broths, they are stored in plastic flasks, and like the water in an aquarium, the broth is changed regularly to provide new food for the cells. When a virus such as AIDS or polio is properly transmitted to a cell line it can be reproduced in large quantities. That is the most efficient way to study the structure of something as complicated as the retrovirus that causes AIDS.
Unlike other viruses, and most living cells, a retrovirus has genetic material made from RNA (ribonucleic acid) instead of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). And it is much more insidious. With the aid of a special enzyme, reverse transcriptase, retroviruses like the AIDS virus manufacture DNA copies of themselves, and splice their genes into the genes of the cell they occupy. Whereas a normal virus would merely invade a cell and live as a parasite within it, the retrovirus takes complete control of the genetic machinery of the cell it has infected, killing it and its progeny or turning them into cancer cells, often after lying dormant for years.
Gallo spent the 1970s trying to prove that cancer could be caused by such a retrovirus. At that time, NCI established a virus cancer program to coincide with President Nixon’s war on cancer. Scientists around the world were eagerly searching for cancer viruses but nobody could find one, until 1975 when Gallo and his colleagues thought they had. As was customary, samples were sent to other laboratories to examine before the findings were presented at an important scientific meeting in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Instead of finding glory, however, Gallo was nearly disgraced.
I was not prepared for what happened at the meeting. Several researchers, one after another after another, came up to announce that examination of the cells we had sent out for independent confirmation had revealed not one, but two…different animal primate retrovirus contaminations.
What surprised me were not the findings…but the vehemence with which they were delivered. More than one speaker used our misfortune to ridicule the very idea of a human retrovirus…. Even now I have difficulty thinking back to that day.
Gallo’s virus had been infected by a monkey or chimp, and the embarrassing failure not only damaged his ego, but aroused considerable skepticism among scientists, who began to doubt that human tumor viruses—which they referred to as human rumor viruses—existed. Then, in 1978, Gallo found the first human retrovirus, HTLV-1, which causes a rare and fatal form of leukemia. But his excitement at the discovery was tempered by the recent humiliation.
Even though I knew we were right, I wanted to know it was something that could be done again by others…. My plan was simple. We had to convince the critics as soon as possible.
He orchestrated the release of several papers “intended to answer every possible significant question we could anticipate.” This time, the science worked, and so did the public relations. Soon after, he found another retrovirus. By the time he had isolated what became known as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), establishing its link to AIDS and developing a test to detect its presence in the blood, Gallo had been transformed from a loser to a star, and had become the most famous employee of the country’s principal biomedical research establishment, the National Institutes of Health.
In Stockholm in 1988 in the midst of his apparent success, although he did not publicly acknowledge it Robert Gallo was being pursued by a doppelgänger. An annoying reporter, one with a Pulitzer Prize and a history of investigative zeal, had spent much of the past three years examining virtually every assertion, lab note, tissue culture, and scrap of data Gallo had published in the course of discovering the cause of AIDS. John Crewdson of The Chicago Tribune had, through the Freedom of Information Act, sought, and largely gained, access to every documented scientific event in Gallo’s career.
Crewdson pursued Gallo, filing more than one hundred FOIA requests, and unlike most science reporters, who tend to view important scientists with awe, he was skeptical of everything Gallo and the researchers working with him said or wrote. Crewdson’s 50,000-word article was published as a special supplement in the Tribune in 1989, and while it never quite charged Gallo with theft of Montagnier’s virus, its detailed accounting of Gallo’s claims raised enough doubt about the candor with which he had reported his results and conducted his research that it set off a new round of inquisitions by the NIH, which was eager to please the powerful Representative Dingell, who oversees the health budget and who had objected to its extremely reticent approach to past investigations.
Virus Hunting might never have been written, or would at least have been an altogether different book, had not Crewdson so directly questioned Gallo’s integrity. Yet Gallo refers to him in the book only in passing, and his long, intensely detailed report as “one journalist’s bizarre and obsessively defamatory article.” Crewdson himself is listed neither in the five-page index of names nor in the much longer subject index.
But Crewdson was not alone in wondering how the genetic fingerprints—the sequence of DNA unique to every different form of life—of the virus from the Pasteur Institute could resemble Gallo’s with so little variation. The two viruses differ by no more than two percent in their genetic sequences, making it almost impossible for scientists to see how they could come from separate patients. In fact, no two AIDS viruses have ever been found that resemble each other more closely than these strains, nor have studies in Africa, Europe, and the United States so far produced any other patient with the same strain as that reported by both Gallo and Montagnier.
The principal charges against Gallo have been described before, but since his book is so much a response to them, it may be worth repeating them in detail.
In May 1983, shortly after Montagnier and his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute published the first paper describing what eventually proved to be the AIDS virus, which they named LAV-1, Gallo, who was working along the same lines, asked Montagnier to give him a sample of his virus. He wanted to see if he could make the virus grow in a cell line, so that he could produce enough of it to characterize it and compare it to samples he was receiving in his own lab. This is accepted, even expected, practice.
Though the French had found the virus, they were unable to grow it in white blood cell lines, because when they tried to do so the cells infected by the AIDS virus would die. At the time it was not known that these were exactly the type of cells that the AIDS virus infected most readily, and killed. Throughout 1983, Gallo tells us, he, too, vainly tried to grow the virus in cells. After failing for some time to make a single virus grow, Mikulas Popovic, a researcher in Gallo’s lab, decided to mix together samples from ten different patients to produce a viral cocktail, on the theory that he might hit upon one or more than one that would grow rapidly. This proved to be right. Since some viral strains grow better in tissue culture or cell lines than others, by mixing them together Popovic was able to find the easiest route to the strongest virus. By December, the virus was isolated and Gallo named it HTLV-B3, claiming that it was a separate viral isolate from the Institut Pasteur’s LAV-1, and believing—or at least hoping—that it was related to the two previous retroviruses he had discovered. Sometime in the summer of 1983, however, before he was able to grow HTLV-B3, Gallo requested an additional supply from Montagnier, since the first batch of LAV-1 had died, and he received a virus grown from a patient called Frédéric Brugiére, known as BRU.
Gallo has always maintained, as he does in Virus Hunting, that before receiving the second batch of French virus he had already found evidence of reverse transcriptase in several of his own AIDS isolates, which would prove they were retroviruses. He kept trying to grow them in cell lines, and again, because they were made of white blood cells, the AIDS virus was killing them.
The French charged in their lawsuit that their cell line had simply contaminated Gallo’s, and that he had grown their virus mistakenly assuming it was his. Because the two are so remarkably similar, the evidence has long seemed overwhelming that there was some contamination. A fast-growing AIDS virus brought into a room with other strains can easily drift by air or be conveyed mistakenly by any number of scientific instruments from one plastic dish to another, which is all it really takes for one virus to contaminate another.7
Only recently has definitive proof emerged of what had happened. In February Gallo published a paper in Nature that he hoped would absolve him of the charge that he had intentionally or inadvertently taken the French virus.8 But if anything, his claim led to virtually definitive proof that the reverse was true. Going back to his storage freezers, Gallo analyzed samples of the virus Montagnier had sent him in 1983 from the patient known as BRU. In theory, if the samples were identical to Gallo’s, then the French accusations would be accurate. He was thrilled to find they were not, and reported that the DNA sequences of the two viruses differed by about 10 percent—far too large for them to be the same strain. But Gallo’s relief was short-lived. When his data was analyzed at the Los Alamos National Lab, researchers there found significant mistakes in the way the work was done. Properly calculated the two viral sequences are only about 5 percent different from each other—that is, they could easily be the same, because the AIDS virus mutates as much as this, even when it is from a single patient.9 The recent correction in Nature by Gallo and his colleagues was an admission of errors in their calculations that removed all doubt that Gallo’s virus was also Montagnier’s.10
Only a few weeks later, Montagnier published his own report in Science which convincingly explains how the virus indistinguishable from HTLV-3 was sent to Gallo in 1983.11 The Pasteur team, having gone to its own freezers, found that one of the specimens from BRU which had made up LAV-1 had accidentally been contaminated in Montagnier’s lab by a fastgrowing, particularly virulent strain of the virus, known as LAI. Laboratory records and analysis showed that this was the sample thought to be from BRU that was sent to Gallo. Moreover, all of the samples analyzed at Pasteur predated any viral samples that had been sent to them by Gallo. The evidence seemed irrefutable: LAI was first isolated by the French; it then contaminated the virus from BRU, and was sent to Gallo’s lab, where it proceeded to contaminate his strain.
At this writing, only the official report from NIH remains to be published. If, as expected, it confirms Montagnier’s results, it could conceivably mean that Gallo and the United States no longer deserve half the royalties on the patent for the AIDS blood test developed from the initial virus, although this seems unlikely, in view of Gallo’s independent work in growing the virus in cell lines and characterizing it as a retrovirus. In any event, the NIH report seems almost beside the point. For years, it was suspected by scientists and journalists that the similarity between Gallo and Montagnier’s virus was either a coincidence, or, more likely, the product of a common contamination. (The only other logical explanation, as a researcher in Gallo’s laboratory suggested to me, was that “our guy slept with Luc’s guy.”) Moreover, as Gallo seeks to underscore, while discovering the virus that caused AIDS was a critical task, it was only the first step toward understanding the disease and finding a vaccine and an eventual cure.
But by insisting for so long that he and Montagnier had different viruses, regally dismissing suggestions to the contrary, Gallo may have impeded the development of a vaccine. LAI, it turns out, is a uniquely powerful strain of the AIDS virus, and not at all typical. Although it has not yet been proven, the patient with LAI may have also been infected with another strain of the AIDS virus. If so, it would mean that antibodies created by the first virus did nothing to prevent the second, a suggestion with troubling implications for the development of a broadly usable vaccine. Most AIDS vaccine researchers based their early research on samples received from Gallo or Montagnier, and worked on them as if they were different viruses, in order to develop a broad preventive that would be effective against many other AIDS viral strains. If they had known with certainty from the start that the two viruses were the same, years of confusion might have been saved for researchers trying to construct a cogent history of how the virus mutates with time.
As it is, even Gallo and his most, optimistic colleagues acknowledge that the immediate prospects for a vaccine are remote. Gallo points to many of the most serious obstacles in his book, including the lack of a widely accepted animal model of AIDS to test possible vaccines; and the unique necessity for any such vaccine to prevent infection of every single virus particle, because of HIV’s singular ability to integrate its genetic information into the cells it infects. Most troubling, perhaps, HIV varies so widely that a vaccine that works well on one strain may be useless on another.
Drug development to treat the disease has been more promising, although there too it could be years before the promise is fully realized. Since AZT, in 1987, there have been nearly a dozen novel approaches to interfering with the virus. While none is perfect, many AIDS specialists express confidence that when used together—as with cancer therapy—they might conceivably prevent the virus from reproducing.
Relying heavily on molecular biology, researchers have developed a variety of such drugs, although so far they remain experimental. One is an artificial version of a protein molecule called CD4, which is normally found on the outer surface of key immune system cells. It acts as a decoy and sops up the virus as it enters the blood. Other agents are more specific. Antisense molecules, for example, bind to small pieces of the virus’s genetic material. In animals, they have prevented genes from making proteins similar to the ones required to form the AIDS virus. Protease inhibitors are yet another promising class of drugs. After the AIDS virus has integrated itself into the genes of a cell, it begins to manufacture new viral proteins that must be properly assembled or they will fail to work. Protease inhibitors block a key step in the assembly process, effectively killing them. Taken together these drugs may, it is hoped, one day turn AIDS into a chronic, but manageable, illness.
Gallo suggests that after a decade in which the AIDS epidemic has swept across the world, infecting millions, it is frivolous to dwell on past research when the future is so grimly uncertain, and he treats many of the questions that have pursued him as tiresome meddling that serves no purpose:
Controversy is no newcomer to science, nor are occasional incidents of scientific fraud. Brother Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics and a cleric, has been accused of having fudged his pea data; his critics say that it is highly improbable that he could have come up with such precise findings with the limited number of peas in his study. Was Mendel dishonest or just very lucky? We do know he was right and his contributions were enormous.
I have even read reports of controversy about the work of the great physicist Isaac Newton, although here, too, no one has challenged, or can ever challenge, his contributions to science.
Yet to brush such questions aside is to ignore the nature of modern science, and the dramatic way in which its conventions and practice have changed in the years since most of the NIH’s senior researchers first arrived there. “To a remarkable degree, control over research was ceded to the scientific community,” Paul Starr wrote of the founding of NIH in The Social Transformation of American Medicine in 1982:
The approval of grant applications as well as basic policy issues rested with panels of nongovernmental scientists. The individual scientist, too, enjoyed autonomy within the constraints of professional competition.
But for celebrated researchers like Robert Gallo and others, these days of unfettered intellectual freedom are past. The size and costs of government science itself and the public’s heightened expectations have introduced a far higher level of scrutiny to medical research. Last year, the NIH distributed more than $7 billion in grants to universities and foundations, money that supported most of the biomedical research conducted in the United States. The cost and complexity of most experiments make it impossible for even the richest universities to turn down this kind of assistance. Gallo’s lab itself received more than $12 million last year alone. Gallo complains that federal involvement has permitted scientific conduct to be continually challenged by nonscientists, who, it is implied, cannot possibly have the sophistication to judge this complicated profession.
Never before have staff members—from secretarial people to lab technicians, postdocs, senior investigators all the way up to branch chiefs and institute heads—had to deal with so much outside-imposed regulation regarding documentation and ethics.
This issue rises to the surface within five minutes of starting a conversation with many government scientists. Gallo returns to it throughout his book, noting that no private researcher would have had to endure Crewdson’s inquisition, or Congressman Dingell’s investigations.
That the Gallo investigation received so much publicity, both here and abroad, is not surprising in view of his eminence and visibility. Yet, in large part, it is Gallo’s abrasive personality, not his science, that is most responsible for the bitterness of the past few years. Gallo’s reaction to the public controversy has alternated between denouncing Montagnier’s lab and admitting there may have been technical errors, even contamination, in his work or the work of those in his lab, but at the same time grandly questioning the judgment of anyone who could care about means when the ends were so glorious. He is, he says, an idea man, not a technical virtuoso. Throughout, he has tended to belittle Montagnier’s work. This biologist, who was almost driven from science by the harshness of the criticism he received years ago at the meeting in Hershey, Pennsylvania, insists that he has always practiced an instinctive method of “tough questioning,” which he sees “as part of the scientific process, part of the hard-knocks survival selection process that evolves a hardier truth.” In Virus Hunting, he describes a meeting at which he questioned Montagnier’s belief that LAV-l was the cause of AIDS.
Montagnier was clearly rattled by the questions and seemed particularly disturbed that they had come from me. We are not alike in our styles, as people or as scientists. He is quiet, almost formal, holding his own counsel when competing ideas are being presented. If he speaks at all, it is usually simply to ask a question. I love the rough-and-tumble of intellectual debate and usually welcome attacks on my own ideas (although I admit not always, and depending on the source), even though I know that at the moment I will be uncomfortable with them.
Long ago, Gallo announced he would no longer discuss the allegations against him, and then proceeded to attempt to refute them in one way or another at nearly every scientific forum he has attended since. For a respected scientist, he is uncommonly sensitive to public relations, and he has enlisted some of the nation’s top government researchers to approach journalists and to remind them how important Gallo’s contributions have been. In most cases, the reminders were never necessary.
It has been suggested that if AIDS had never come along Robert Gallo would have earned a Nobel Prize for his work in cancer research. Moreover, NIH investigators agree that Gallo had isolated many other strains of the AIDS virus by the time he published his first important articles identifying the cause of the disease, so it made no sense for him to steal the Pasteur’s. But merely possessing samples of the raw cells does not alone prove that they cause AIDS. They have to be made to grow. Few doubt that Gallo would eventually have discovered those viruses without LAV, though it might have taken him months or longer.
In the case of Gallo and Montagnier, the discovery of the AIDS virus should have been a collaborative effort, no different from those that prevail throughout science. Researchers for the NIH, universities, and private businesses routinely join together in their attempts to develop a drug, for example, or to understand the nature of a scientific problem. Groups form and dissolve constantly, based on scientific predilection and research needs. Gallo and others in modern molecular biology benefit tremendously from these new protean arrangements. That is why it has been so foolish for Gallo to belittle others’ achievements, and to deny his debt to them.
The sad irony is that this long and painful controversy would not have happened had Gallo years ago told his scientific superiors in the US government of the routine possibility that a contaminant might have worked its way into his cell line. In 1962, when the Nobel Prize was awarded for solving the structure of DNA, it went not only to James Watson and Francis Crick for their famous discovery. Maurice Wilkins, one of their strongest competitors, also shared the prize, for his important but less public role in the research. There was enough glory to go around.
—July 18, 1991
August 15, 1991
The Washington Post (April 1, 1987). ↩
Gallo R.C., Montagnier L., Nature, Vol. 326 (April 2, 1987), p. 435. ↩
Gallo R.C., Montagnier L, Scientific American, Vol. 259 (October 1988), p. 41. ↩
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. ↩
R.C. Gallo, Nature, Vol. 381 (May 30, 1991), p. 358. ↩
The book has been published at a critical time in Gallo’s career. Not only is the Office of Scientific Integrity at NIH nearing the completion of an exhaustive review of the work that led Gallo’s lab to claim it discovered the AIDS virus, but one of Gallo’s closest collaborators at the lab, Syed Zaki Salahuddin, has been convicted of having steered nearly a million dollars of NIH business to a company of which he and his wife were secret owners. Another colleague, Prem Sarin, his former deputy lab chief, has been accused by the General Accounting Office of improperly accepting consulting fees from drug companies and of having forged Gallo’s signature on government documents. Moreover, in France, and at NIH, yet another investigation has recently begun, after it was revealed that three volunteers died in an AIDS vaccine experiment conducted by Gallo’s close friend Daniel Zagury, of the University of Paris. The viruses used in the vaccine were supplied by Gallo and genetically engineered at NIH, but Gallo never notified the NIH Office for Protection from Research Risks of the collaborations as government scientists routinely do. Gallo has been close to all three men under investigation and has strongly defended them. Morale in his lab has suffered, and several of his most experienced colleagues have left the lab and NIH. ↩
The issue of contamination is essential to understanding molecular biology or the dispute between Gallo and Montagnier. In his book, Gallo acknowledges that contamination “is a very common problem in any virus laboratory where more than one microbe is being studied, particularly common with retroviruses in very active labs.” And as he repeatedly states in his book, few labs, if any, were more active than his. ↩
Gallo R.C. et al., Nature Vol. 373 (February 28, 1991), p. 745. ↩
Interview with Dr. Gerald Myers, director of the HIV sequence database and analysis project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. HIV mutates rapidly and varies tremendously. It is not uncommon to see viral variation of up to 5 percent in the same patient. See also The Washington Post, September 6, 1987; The Journal of NIH Research, April 1991, Vol 3. ↩
Gallo, et al., Nature, Vol. 381 (May 30, 1991), p. 358. ↩
Wain Hobson, S. et al., Science (Vol. 252), p. 981 ↩