Robert Gallo and the Co-Discovery of HIV

His contribution to finding the cause of AIDS was shrouded in controversy

Robert Gallo is one of the scientists credited with the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Gallo and his collaborators published their research on the discovery of the HIV virus in early 1984. This was a monumental turning point in a rapidly growing health crisis.

In the early 1980s, little was known about a mysterious disease that was killing thousands of people whose immune systems were effectively collapsing, leaving them vulnerable to an array of life-threatening illnesses. The identification of HIV opened the door for targeted research on transmission, treatment, and prevention.

So why, in 2008, when the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to French co-discoverers Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, was Robert Gallo not included?

Robert Gallo, Co-Discoverer of HIV
National Cancer Institute

Early Career to the Discovery of HIV

Robert Charles Gallo was born in 1937. After performing his medical residency at the University of Chicago, he became a researcher at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a position he held for 30 years. Gallo acknowledges that his decision to pursue a career in cancer research was largely influenced by the early death of his sister to cancer.

Much of Gallo's research with the NCI focused on T-cell leukocytes, a subset of white blood cells that are key to the body's immune response. This foundational research led Gallo and his team to grow T-cells and isolate viruses that affect them, including one called the human T-cell leukemia virus, or HTLV.

When the news of a mysterious illness was first reported in the U.S. in 1982, Gallo and his team turned their attention to identifying what they believed to be a viral agent causing the rapid depletion of T-cells in sick and dying patients.

At the same time, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier, both of the Institut Pasteur in France, were also pursuing what they believed to be the viral cause of a disease they were now calling AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Their research led to the discovery of what they named lymphadenopathy associated virus (LAV), which they proposed was the cause of AIDS in 1983. 

For their part, Gallo and his team isolated a virus they labeled HTLV-3 and published a series of four articles, drawing the very same conclusions as Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi.

It was only in 1986 that the two viruses—HTLV-3 and LAV—were confirmed to be the same virus, after which it was renamed HIV.

Nobel Controversy

In 1986, Gallo was awarded the prestigious Lasker Award for his discovery of HIV. The distinction was marred somewhat by an unflattering portrayal of Gallo in the novel "And the Bank Played On" by Randy Shilts, as well as the HBO movie of the same name.

By 1989, investigative journalist John Crewdson published an article suggesting that Gallo misappropriated samples of LAV from the Institut Pasteur, charges that were later dismissed after an investigation by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

According to the NIH report, Montagnier sent a virus sample from an ill patient to the National Cancer Institute upon Gallo's request. Unbeknownst to Montagnier, the sample had been contaminated with another virus—the very same one the French team would later classify as LAV. The virus sample was then confirmed to have contaminated Gallo's pooled culture, leading to what was the most perplexing case of finger-pointing in the history of AIDS research.

It was only in 1987 that the controversy was cleared up, and both the U.S. and France agreed to split the proceeds from the patent rights. By this time, however, Gallo's reputation had been severely marred, and despite a 2002 article in Science magazine in which Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier acknowledged each other's contribution to the discovery, only Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi received recognition by the 2008 Nobel Prize Committee.

Gallo's Continuing Contribution to AIDS Research

Despite this, Gallo's contribution to AIDS research is uncontested, and Gallo and Barré-Sinoussi now profess strong support for one another's work. In addition to the co-discovery of HIV, Gallo is credited with providing the foundational research needed to develop the first HIV test.

In 1996, Gallo and his colleagues founded the Institute of Human Virology, which was awarded a $15 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its research into preventative HIV vaccines. 

In 2011, Gallo founded the Global Virus Network with the aim of increasing collaboration between virus investigators and overcoming gaps in research.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gallo RC, Montagnier L. Perspective: The Discovery of HIV as the Cause of AIDS. N Engl J Med 2003; 349:2283-2285doi:10.1056/NEJMp038194

  2. Vahlne A. A historical reflection on the discovery of human retroviruses. Retrovirology. 2009;6:40. doi:10.1186/1742-4690-6-40

  3. Cohen J. At gathering of HIV/AIDS pioneers, raw memories mix with current conflicts. Science. 2016. doi:10.1126/science.aal0306

Additional Reading

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.