Gallo meeting opens today, a foxhole for AIDS fighters 800 scientists to swap data here at conference that can get quirky

September 07, 1996|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Twenty-four years after its start in a windowless conference room in Bethesda, Dr. Robert Gallo's prestigious and slightly quirky gathering of AIDS and cancer researchers makes its home today in Baltimore.

Unlike the sprawling International Conference on AIDS, an annual event that attracts policy-makers, activists and hordes of reporters, the yearly "Gallo meeting" is largely a scientists-only affair held in circum- stances of relative quiet.

It has taken place on a farm, in a state park, at a suburban hotel.

Yet scientists who count themselves as regulars say this may be the one meeting to attend during the year. It is a place to renew friendships, make new ones, set up research collaborations -- and mainly, to discuss ideas that don't always get an airing in more conventional settings.

This year's meeting, which runs through Friday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, has drawn about 800 scientists from about 20 countries -- with sizable contingents from France, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Japan.

"Scientifically, it's just a great meeting," said Dr. Robert Yarchoan, chief of the retroviral disease section at the National Cancer Institute.

He has been attending since 1984.

"Bob has a knack of bringing together people in different disciplines who have a fair amount of overlap. So you tend to get real productive cross-fertilization," he said. "I always come out with great ideas, a feeling that I've learned something."

Gallo, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, has spent the past year setting up a new Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland's graduate campus in West Baltimore. He had spent the previous 30 years at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda.

Academic leaders along with Gov. Parris N. Glendening had waged a long campaign to lure Gallo to Baltimore, banking on him to enhance the university's stature in AIDS research and related areas. With a promise of about $10 million in public funds, Gallo agreed in May 1995 to establish his center in the city.

He plans its formal dedication in November.

Moving his laboratory to Baltimore also meant moving his annual meeting here. Some observers said the yearly meeting would do as much as his laboratory to make people associate the University of Maryland with AIDS research.

A major topic will be chemokines, a class of proteins that appear to play an important role in the body's attempts to repel the AIDS virus. In December, Gallo and several colleagues identified these chemicals as natural AIDS fighters -- raising hopes that they may hold the key to an effective therapy.

Other topics include a "gene therapy" for AIDS; the theory that a herpes virus may be a contributing cause of Kaposi's sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer; and the possible viral origins of multiple sclerosis.

PTC Daily schedules include a dizzying line-up of presentations, many lasting only 15 minutes. Gallo said he also plans a barbecue and softball game near the Inner Harbor, and an Italian dinner featuring pastas made by some of the Italian scientists.

The gathering began modestly in 1972, with Gallo and two dozen associates meeting in a conference room near his lab at the National Cancer Institute.

"Then, close collaborators wanted to come, and collaborators of collaborators," recalled Gallo. "We decided a windowless room wasn't the right thing, so then there was a cheap hotel in Gaithersburg, a farm in Frederick and Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia."

In 1980, Gallo attracted worldwide attention when his laboratory discovered the link between a rare leukemia and a retrovirus that he called HTLV-1. Interest in his meeting intensified a few years later when Gallo and a French scientist announced that a related retrovirus -- later named the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) -- lay at the root of the exploding AIDS epidemic.

For most of the last 15 years, Gallo has staged his meeting at a hotel in Bethesda. He now views Baltimore as its home base, with occasional forays into other parts of the state -- possibly Annapolis.

"There's always been a tremendous amount of interaction with colleagues and friends from all over the world -- getting the latest information, re-evaluating," Gallo said. "Basically, it's meant education. It's a place where you can get a massive amount of information in a very small amount of time."

Dr. William Haseltine, founder and chief executive officer of Human Genome Sciences Inc., a Rockville biotechnology company, has been attending since 1975. He said many people show up year after year.

"Some may call it clubbiness, but it's camaraderie," he said. "It's like people in the same foxhole."

Haseltine, an internationally known AIDS expert who directed the retrovirus division at Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said the meeting is distinguished by its openness.

Participants are encouraged to criticize each other, and they feel comfortable discussing unpopular theories -- even ones ridiculed the greater scientific community.

"It's characterized by its frankness, a real give and take," he said.

Most of the talks are off-the-record -- off limits to press coverage without the permission of scientists presenting the ideas.

Haseltine recalls discussions in the 1970s about retroviruses that infected cows, sheep and monkeys -- causing no symptoms, seemingly disappearing, until disease emerged many years later. Haseltine said the idea that retroviruses might also cause human disease had fallen out of favor in scientific circles, but was discussed seriously at the early lab meetings.

By the mid-1980s, he said, the idea was dogma.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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