Robert Gallo, Co-Discoverer of HIV

Contribution to Identifying the Cause of AIDS Still Shrouded in Controversy

Photo Credit: National Cancer Institute

The history of HIV is a complex one. 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.

One of the scientists credited with discovering the cause of the disease—the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)—was Robert Gallo, who, with his collaborators, published their research in Science magazine in early 1984.

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

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 "gay cancer" were 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, 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.

Co-Discovery Leads to 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 TV 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 Gallo and 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.

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