Robert C. Gallo Biography (1937-)

Nationality
American
Gender
Male
Occupation
virologist

Robert C. Gallo, one of the best-known biomedical researchers in the United States, is considered the codiscoverer, along with Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute, of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Galloestablished that the virus causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), something which Montagnier had not been able to do, and he developed the blood test for HIV, which remains a central tool in efforts to control thedisease. Gallo also discovered the human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV)and the human T-cell growth factor interleukin-2.

Gallo's initial work on the isolation and identification of the AIDS virus has been the subject of a number of allegations, resulting in a lengthy investigation and official charges of scientific misconduct which were overturned onappeal. Although he has now been exonerated, the ferocity of the controversyhas tended to obscure the importance of his contributions both to AIDS research and biomedical research in general. As Malcolm Gladwell observed in 1990in the Washington Post: "Gallo is easily one of the country's most famous scientists, frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender, and a manwhose research publications were cited by other researchers publishing theirown work during the last decade more often than those of any other scientistin the world."

Gallo was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on March 23, 1937, to Francis Antonand Louise Mary (Ciancuilli) Gallo. He grew up in the house that his Italiangrandparents bought after they came to the United States. His father workedlong hours at the welding company which he owned. The dominant memory of Gallo's youth was of the illness and death of his only sibling, Judy, from childhood leukemia. The disease brought Gallo into contact with the nonfamily member who most influenced his life, Dr. Marcus Cox, the pathologist who diagnosedher disease in 1948. During his senior year in high school, an injury kept Gallo off the high school basketball team and forced him to think about his future. He began to spend time with Cox, visiting him at the hospital, even assisting in postmortem examinations. When Gallo entered college, he knew he wanted a career in biomedical research.

Gallo attended Providence College, where he majored in biology, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1959. He continued his schooling at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he got an introduction to medical research.In 1961 he worked as a summer research fellow in Alan Erslev's laboratory atJefferson. His work studying the pathology of oxygen deprivation in coal miners led to his first scientific publication in 1962, while he was still a medical student.

In 1961 Gallo married Mary Jane Hayes, a woman he knew from his hometown whomhe had begun dating in his first year of college. Together they had two children. Gallo graduated from medical school in 1963; on the advice of Erslev, he went to the University of Chicago because it had a reputation as a major center for blood-cell biology, Gallo's research interest. From 1963 to 1965 hedid research on the biosynthesis of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood.

In 1965 Gallo was appointed to the position of clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. He spent much of his first year at NIH caring for cancer patients. Despite the often depressing work environment, he observed some early successes at treating cancer patients with chemotherapy. Children were being cured of the very form ofchildhood leukemia that killed his sister almost twenty years before. In 1966, Gallo was appointed to his first full-time research position, as an associate of Seymour Perry, who was head of the medicine department. Perry was studying how white blood cells grow in various forms of leukemia. In his laboratory Gallo studied the enzymes involved in the synthesis of the components of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the carrier of genetic information.

The expansion of the NIH and the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971 led to the creation of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the NIH. Gallo was appointed head of the newlaboratory. He had become intrigued with the possibility that certain kinds of cancer had viral origins, and he set up his new laboratory to study human retroviruses. Retroviruses are types of viruses which possess the ability to penetrate other cells and splice their own genetic material into the genes oftheir hosts, eventually taking over all of their reproductive functions. At the time Gallo began his work, retroviruses had been found in animals; the question was whether they existed in humans. His research involved efforts to isolate a virus from victims of certain kinds of leukemia, and he and his colleagues were able to view a retrovirus through electron microscopes. In 1975, Gallo and Robert E. Gallagher announced that they had discovered a human leukemia virus, but other laboratories were unable to replicate their results. Scientists to whom they had sent samples for independent confirmation had foundtwo different retroviruses not from humans, but from animals. The samples hadbeen contaminated by viruses from a monkey or a chimp and the idea that a virus could cause cancer was publicly ridiculed.

Despite the humiliation Gallo suffered and the damage this premature announcement did to his reputation, he continued his efforts to isolate a human retrovirus. He turned his attention to T-cells, white blood cells which are an important part of the body's immune system, and developed a substance called T-cell growth factor (later called interleukin-2), which would sustain them outside the human body. The importance of this growth factor was that it enabled Gallo and his team to sustain cancerous T-cells long enough to discover whether a retrovirus existed within them. These techniques allowed Gallo and his team to isolate a previously unknown virus from a leukemia patient. Henamed the virus human T-cell leukemia virus, or HTLV, and he published this finding in Science in 1981. This time his findings were confirmed, andas Michael Specter noted in the New York Review of Books, Gallo was"transformed from a loser to a star."

It was Gallo's experience with viral research that made him so important in the effort to identify the cause of AIDS, after that disease had first been characterized by doctors in the United States. In further studies of HTLV, Gallo had established that it could be transmitted by breast-feeding, sexual intercourse, and blood transfusions. He also observed that the incidence of cancers caused by this virus was concentrated in Africa and the Caribbean. HTLV had these and other characteristics in common with what was thenknown about AIDS, and Gallo was one of the first scientists to hypothesize that the disease was caused by a virus. In 1982, the National Cancer Instituteformed an AIDS task force with Gallo as its head. In this capacity he made available to the scientific community the research methods he had developed forHTLV, and among those whom he provided with some early technical assistancewas Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Gallo tried throughout 1983 to get the AIDS virus to grow in culture, using the same growth factor that had worked in growing HTLV, but he was not successful. Finally, a member of Gallo's group named Mikulas Popovic developed a method to grow the virus in a line of T-cells. The method consisted, in effect,of mixing samples from various patients into a kind of a cocktail, using perhaps ten different strains of the virus at a time, so there was a higher chance that one would survive. This innovation allowed the virus to be studied, and observing the similarities to the retroviruses he had previously discovered, Gallo called it HTLV-3. In 1984, he and his colleagues published their findings in Science. Gallo and the other scientists in his laboratory were able to establish that this virus caused AIDS, and they developed a blood test for the virus. In a 1993 issue of New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Wade writes: "After twelve grim years, Gallo's blood test is still the only weapon of real value that scientists have yet managed to devise against this baffling disease."

Almost a year before Gallo announced his findings, Montagnier at the PasteurInstitute had identified a virus he called LAV, though he was not able to prove that it caused AIDS. The two laboratories were cooperating with each otherin the race to find the cause of AIDS and several samples of this virus hadbeen sent to Gallo at the National Cancer Institute. The controversy which would embroil the American scientist's career for almost the next decade beganwhen the United States government denied the French scientists a patent for the AIDS test and awarded one to his team instead. The Pasteur Institute believed their contribution was not recognized in this decision, and they challenged it in court. Gallo did not deny that they had preceded him in isolating the virus, but he argued that it was proof of the causal relationship and the development of the blood test which were most important, and he maintained that these advances had been accomplished using a virus which had been independently isolated in his laboratory.

This first stage of the controversy ended in a legal settlement that was highly unusual for the scientific community: Gallo and Montagnier agreed out of court to share equal credit for their discovery. This settlement followed a review of records from Gallo's laboratory and rested on the assumption that thevirus Gallo had discovered was different from the one Montagnier had sent him. An international committee renamed the virus HIV, and in what Specter calls "the first such negotiated history of a scientific enterprise ever published," the American and French groups published an agreement about their contributions in Nature in 1987. In 1988, Gallo and Montagnier jointly related the story of the discoveries in Scientific American.

Questions about the isolation of the AIDS virus were revived in 1989 by a long article in the Chicago Tribune. The journalist, a Pulitzer Prize winner named John Crewdson, had spent three years investigating Gallo's laboratory, making over one hundred requests under the Freedom of Information Act.He directly questioned Gallo's integrity and implied he had stolen Montagnier's virus. The controversy intensified when it was established that the LAV virus which the French had isolated and the HTLV-3 virus were virtually identical. The genetic sequencing in the two were in fact so close that some believed they actually came from the same AIDS patient, and Gallo was accused of simply renaming the virus Montagnier had sent him. Gallo's claim to have independently isolated the virus was further damaged when it was discovered that inthe 1984 Science article announcing his discovery of HTLV-3 he had accidently published a photograph of Montagnier's virus.

In 1990, pressure from a congressional committee forced the NIH to undertakean investigation. In the Washington Post, Malcolm Gladwell observedof this inquiry: "No other investigation has taken so long, dealt with a scientific discovery of such importance or directly implicated so distinguished aresearcher." The NIH investigation found Popovic guilty of scientific misconduct but Gallo guilty only of misjudgment. A committee of scientists which oversaw the investigation was strongly critical of these conclusions, and the group expressed concern that Popovic had been assigned more than a fair shareof the blame. In June 1992, the NIH investigation was superseded by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in December of that year ORI found both Gallo and Popovic guilty of scientific misconduct. Based largely on a single sentence in the 1984 Science article that described the isolation of the virus, the ORI report found Gallo guilty of misconduct for "falsely reporting that LAV had not been transmitted to a permanently growing cell line." This decision renewedthe legal threat from the Pasteur Institute, whose lawyers moved to claim all the back royalties from the AIDS blood test, which then amounted to approximately $20 million.

Gallo strongly objected to the findings of the ORI, pointing to the fact thatthe finding of misconduct turned on a single sentence in a single paper. Other scientists objected to the panel's priorities, believing that the charge of misconduct concerned a misrepresentation of a relatively minor issue whichdid not negate the scientific validity of Gallo's conclusions. Lawyers representing both Gallo and Popovic brought their cases before an appeals board atthe Department of Health and Human Services. Popovic's case was heard first,and in December 1993 the board announced that he had been cleared of all charges. As quoted in Time, the panel declared: "One might anticipate ...after all the sound and fury, there would be at least a residue of palpablewrongdoing. This is not the case." The ORI immediately withdrew all charges against Gallo for lack of proof.

According to Time, in December 1993 Gallo considered himself "completely vindicated" of all the allegations that had been made against him. He has established that before 1984 his laboratory had succeeded in isolating other strains of the virus which were not similar to LAV. Many scientists now believe that the problem was simply one of contamination, a mistake which may have been a consequence of the intense pressure for results in many laboratories during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It has been hypothesized that the LAV sample from the Pasteur Institute contaminated the mixture ofAIDS viruses which Popovic concocted to find one strain that would survive inculture; it is believed that this strain was strong enough to survive and beidentified by Gallo and Popovic for a second time.

In 1990, when the controversy was still at its height, Gallo published a bookabout his career called Virus Hunting, which seemed intended to refute the charges against him, particularly the Tribune article by Crewdson. Gallo made many of the claims that were later supported by the appealsboard, and in the New York Times Book Review, Natalie Angier calledhim "a formidable gladiator who firmly believes in the importance of his scientific contributions." Angier wrote of the book: "His description of the keyexperiments in 1983 and 1984 that led to the final isolation of the AIDS virus are intelligent and persuasive, particularly to a reader who was heard theother side of the story. Although the reviews of Virus Hunting werenot entirely sympathetic, many felt the controversy was misplaced. A numberof reviewers commented on how this controversy had virtually paralyzed one ofthe most important AIDS research laboratories in the world. In the Washington Post, J. D. Robinson observed that "thousands of hours and untoldpsychic energy which could have been devoted to seeking a cure for AIDS havebeen spent responding to inquiries and accusations."

The many allegations and the long series of investigations have distracted many people from the accomplishments of a man whose name appears on hundreds ofscientific papers and who has won most major awards in biomedical research except the Nobel Prize. Gallo has actually received the coveted Albert LaskerAward twice, once in 1982 for his work on the viral origins of cancer, and again in 1986 for his research on AIDS. He has also been awarded the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor in 1983, the Lucy Wortham Prize from the Societyfor Surgical Oncology in 1984, the Armand Hammer Cancer Research Award in 1985, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for Biomedical Research in 1987. He has received eleven honorary degrees.

Recent Updates

February 11, 2004: It was announced that Gallo will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame on May 1, 2004, in Akron, Ohio. He and LucMontagnier independently discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and determined that this virus causes AIDS. Source: National InventorsHall of Fame, www.invent.org, April 8, 2004.September 2005: Gallo was elected a Fellow of the American Associationfor the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Election as an AAAS Fellow recognizesan individual's distinguished contributions to science. Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science, www.aaas.org, November 9, 2005.

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