Robert Gallo

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Robert Gallo

Robert Gallo (born 1937) is one of the most influential, yet controversial, researchers of the twentieth century. Working at the National Institutes of Health, Gallo was one of the first scientists to discover a human retrovirus, which proved to be an important breakthrough in the fight against cancer. He was also a co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and developed the test used to screen blood for AIDS.

Robert Charles Gallo was born in Waterbury, Connecticut on March 23, 1937. His grandparents immigrated to the United States from Italy. His parents, Francis Anton and Louise Mary (Ciancuilli) Gallo, were both born and raised in Waterbury, where his father worked as a metallurgist.

Gallo's early scientific influences were his father and his uncle, Joe Anthony, his mother's brother-in-law. His father had an extensive technical library. His uncle was a zoologist who had a passion for his work. However, it was a life-altering event in 1948 that had the biggest impact on Gallo's future career. When Gallo was only 11 years old his younger sister and only sibling, Judy, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of five. She was one of the first patients to be treated with antimetabolite chemotherapy and one of the first to experience remission from drug therapy. Despite these efforts, Judy died in March 1949. Gallo was deeply affected by the images of his little sister in the hospital and by the toll the child's death took on his parents, particularly his father.

The only positive outcome of this family tragedy was that young Gallo was introduced to Dr. Marcus Cox, the pathologist at St. Mary's Hospital in Waterbury who first diagnosed his sister's illness. In his autobiography, Virus Hunting, Gallo described Cox as "a clinical pathologist by medical specialty, he had the attributes of a born scientist, ever curious, always seeking to find out why something happened the way it did, harshly critical of glib explanations." Dr. Cox became a close friend of Francis Gallo and a mentor to his young son, Robert.

Medical Training

As a teenager at Sacred Heart High School, Gallo had not given much thought to his career. Instead, he was preoccupied with the usual teenage activities, sports and socializing. Gallo was an avid basketball player, but an injury during his senior year kept him from playing. Instead he began to spend his free time with Dr. Cox at the hospital. By the time he entered Providence College the following year, he knew he wanted a career in medicine. Gallo majored in biology and then went on to Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. At that time Jefferson was known for its strong clinical departments, but not necessarily for its research. Gallo, however, was fortunate to work with one of the great researchers, Alan Erslev, who had discovered the first growth factor for any type of blood cell. Erslev taught Gallo how to approach research problems, as well as valuable laboratory skills. He also introduced Gallo to the National Institutes of Health.

Gallo married Mary Jane Hayes after his second year of medical school. She was also a Waterbury native and her brother had been a friend of Gallo in high school. Gallo and Mary Jane began dating when he was a freshman in college. The couple was married on July 1, 1961 and went on to raise two sons, Robert Charles and Marcus.

After finishing medical school Gallo wanted to pursue a career in research, particularly at the National Institutes of Health. Erslev, however, thought it would be better for his career if he first did a medical internship. Gallo followed his advice and went to the University of Chicago, which was an important center for blood cell biology. There he worked with Leon Jacobsen and Rudi Schmid.

Began Career at National Institutes of Health

In 1965 Gallo joined the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he would work for the next 30 years. He began his career in the National Cancer Institute where he conducted research on leukocytes, types of white blood cells. In 1971 he became head of the new Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology. Gallo began to explore whether viruses could cause cancer. In particular, he began to research retroviruses. Once called RNA tumor viruses, retroviruses can convert RNA to DNA with the help of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase. As Gallo explained in his autobiography, this enzyme "in effect gave these viruses permanent access to a variety of cell mechanisms, which they put to use for their own replication and often to a cell's detriment." At that time, retroviruses had been found in animals, but it was not know if they also existed in humans.

In 1975 Gallo and a colleague, Robert E. Gallagher, announced the discovery of a human leukemia virus. This would have been a major accomplishment in Gallo's young career. However, other scientists were unable to replicate his results. In fact, Gallo's samples were contaminated and the retroviruses he found were actually from animals and not humans. Gallo's premature announcement of his discovery was damaging to his reputation, but he continued to pursue this line of research.

Discovered First Human Retrovirus

Gallo next discovered a T-cell growth factor which would keep these white blood cells alive longer while outside of the body and thereby give researchers more time to look for retroviruses. This technique led to the first true discovery of a human retrovirus in 1981, which was called the human T-cell leukemia virus, or HTLV-I. This retrovirus was later linked to some forms of leukemia and neurological diseases. A year later Gallo discovered another retrovirus called HTLV-II.

Around this same time a new disease was gaining worldwide public attention, acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Gallo noticed similarities between his HTLV retroviruses and AIDS, particularly with respect to how they were transmitted. He became one of the first scientists to suspect that AIDS was caused by a virus, possibly a retrovirus. In 1982 Gallo was asked to head a new AIDS task force at the National Cancer Institute.

Controversy Surrounding AIDS Virus

The following year Gallo succeeded in identifying the AIDS virus, which he named HTLV-III. He published his findings in the May 4, 1984 issue of Science. He then quickly developed a test to screen blood for antibodies to the virus and applied for a patent. However, Luc Montagnier, a French scientist from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, had published a paper in Science in May 1983 announcing the discovery of a virus called lymphadenopathy, or LAV. Unlike Gallo, Montagnier had not been able to prove that his virus caused AIDS. However, he did apply for a patent for an AIDS blood test seven months before Gallo.

The United States Patent Office awarded the patent for the AIDS blood test to Gallo. France responded by suing the U.S. government. This controversy led to several heated exchanges between Gallo and Montagnier in which accusations of impropriety were exchanged. The scientific community disapproved of the battle because it was taking time and energy away from treatment and further research on AIDS. In 1987 several scientists, including Jonas Salk who had weathered his own controversy with the polio vaccine, had encouraged Gallo and Montagnier to share credit for the discovery. In an unprecedented event in the scientific community, the two scientists agreed on a time-line of events and published their joint contributions in a 1987 article in Nature. The U.S. and French governments also decided to settle the patent dispute out of court and share the royalties from the AIDS blood test.

Charged with Scientific Misconduct

The controversy was renewed in 1989 when journalist John Crewdson published a lengthy expose of the discovery of the AIDS virus in the Chicago Tribune. Crewdson attacked Gallo's credibility and charged that HTLV-III and LAV were exactly the same virus. Since Montagnier discovered the virus a year before Gallo, it appeared that Gallo was taking credit for Montagnier's work. To make matters worse, Gallo's 1984 Science article announcing HTLV-III accidentally included a picture of Montagnier's LAV virus. The Tribune article led to a 1990 investigation by Congress. In December 1991 the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found Gallo and his colleague Mikulas Popovic guilty of scientific misconduct.

In 1991 Gallo published his autobiography, Virus Hunting, which was a detailed rebuttal of Crewdson's allegations. Gallo publicly acknowledged that his virus sample had been contaminated because the two researchers had been sending samples to one another. Gallo, however, still maintained that he was the one who had made the important link between HTLV-III or LAV and AIDS. He and Popovic both appealed the misconduct decision and they were cleared of all charges by December 1993. In 1994 the United States and France renegotiated their agreement regarding the AIDS blood test patent to make the distribution of royalties more equitable. In the same year Montagnier published his own autobiography called Virus documenting his view of the events leading to the discovery of the AIDS virus. He began by stating that "scientific discoveries are often a matter of circumstance and chance. This was true in Pasteur's time, and is equally so in ours, as we have seen with the discovery of the AIDS virus."

Continued AIDS Research

With the HTLV controversy behind him, Gallo continued his AIDS research. In 1995, after a 30-year career with the National Institutes of Health, he left to become the director of the new Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland. Gallo has since been working on a vaccine for AIDS. In September 2001 Gallo announced that he had developed such a vaccine that worked on monkeys. The next step would be to create a vaccine that could be used for human trials. Gallo has also been involved in the development of a blood test for mad cow disease.

Gallo's groundbreaking research on retroviruses has led to numerous scientific awards. In 1982 he won the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for his work on viral links to cancer and in 1986 he won it a second time for his work on AIDS. He also won the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor in 1983, the Armand Hammer Cancer Research Award in 1985, the Japan Prize for Science and Technology in 1988, and the Paul Erhlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for biomedical research in 1999. Gallo has also received 11 honorary degrees. The one award that has eluded him so far is the Nobel Prize. Some scientists speculate that, despite his groundbreaking discoveries, he has not yet won the most coveted scientific award because of the controversy surrounding the discovery of the AIDS virus. However, Gallo's continuing work on an AIDS vaccine keeps the possibility of a Nobel Prize alive.


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Montagnier, Luc. Virus: The Co-Discoverer of HIV Tracks Its Rampage and Charts the Future, W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.


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Robert Gallo

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