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Robert Charles Gallo

Robert Charles Gallo


American AIDS Researcher

Robert Charles Gallo is known for his discovery of the AIDS virus, for developing a test for the virus that not only diagnoses cases but screens the blood supply, for development of AZT, the only effective AIDS medication, and for his relentless pursuit of an AIDS vaccine.

Gallo's father was a northern Italian immigrant who worked very hard at his metallurgy business in Waterbury, Connecticut, and had abandoned the religious beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. His mother Louise, a very religious and happy person, was part of a big southern Italian family. When Gallo's sister Judith became ill with leukemia, the family was literally torn apart. Gallo blamed God for stealing his childhood and began at 14 to abandon his family for the streets.

Through the entire ordeal of his sister's illness, he had talked with Judith's pathologist, Dr. Marcus Cox, and admired him greatly. Cox enticed him away from the streets to the adventures of medicine. Gallo attended the Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. He disliked being around sick people but was very interested in microbiology, genes, and viruses. After a residency at the University of Chicago, he went to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda in 1965. Gallo won recognition at the institute for his tremendous ego and ability to generated large amounts of money for the government.

As head of the National Cancer Institute Tumor Laboratory, he discovered the first human leukemia virus, the condition that had killed his sister. He also found a number of oncogenes—cancer-causing genetic material—and established that interleukin-2 helps white blood cells fight tumors.

During the early 1980s, a strange new virus threat was emerging. The unknown affliction was characterized by an immune deficiency, along with a group of other conditions. It was called "acquired immunodeficiency syndrome" or AIDS. On April 3, 1984, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler stood along side of Gallo as she announced that the probable cause of AIDS had been found—a virus that was called human immunodeficiency virus or HIV—and that a blood test had been developed. Attributing these discoveries to Gallo, she also predicted that a vaccine would be possible in a few years.

A firestorm erupted immediately with charges that Gallo had stolen the discovery of the virus from French scientist Luc Montagnier (1932- ), of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Indeed, the French researcher had taken the virus from the lymph nodes of a patient with AIDS, but did not show it caused AIDS. Gallo had actually shown the virus to be the cause. Another controversy erupted when Gallo was charged with using a strain of the French virus to develop the test for AIDS. The story was recreated in the film And the Band Played On, with actor Alan Alda cast as Gallo. The film portrayed Gallo as a self-seeking, pompous scientist, and the image stuck. While it was established in 1991 that the sample used by Gallo's lab to isolate the virus was indeed contaminated by a sample from Montagnier's lab, Gallo was cleared of any wrongdoing in 1993.

Gallo's research led to the formulation of AZT for the treatment of AIDS. Money began pouring in for AIDS research, and with the enormous sales of AZT, Gallo became a respectable researcher in great demand in industry. Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, whose brother who died of AIDS, lobbied intently. When Maryland and Baltimore offered to build a multimillion-dollar institute around Gallo, he accepted. The research center, called the Institute of Human Virology, is part of the University of Maryland, but Gallo's private company was authorized to commercialize any marketable results.

Many promising projects are being developed toward the treatment of AIDS. Scientists have discovered naturally occurring molecules called chemokines that suppress HIV in vitro. Gallo has also undertaken work on a gene therapy vector. However, a vaccine for AIDS is a major goal. Although controversial, Gallo is committed to AIDS research. He holds or shares 79 patents and his discoveries have generated more that one million dollars in private sector research.


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