Gallo gets his chance Institute: Dr. Robert C. Gallo's Institute of Human Virology will formally open in Baltimore tomorrow, and taxpayers can see what $12 million has bought.

November 17, 1996|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Two years after state leaders began their courtship of Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the renowned AIDS researcher will formally open his deluxe research center tomorrow on the University of Maryland's campus in Baltimore.

The Institute of Human Virology will be dedicated with a banquet and two days of lectures featuring a lineup of scientific luminaries.

When the ceremonies are over, Maryland's taxpayers will have a chance to see whether Gallo can build the economic engine that Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke envisioned when they committed $12 million over three years to launch the center.

"I like to think of it as a scientific kibbutz, a place where science is appreciated and nurtured for its own rewards," said Dr. Edmund C. Tramont, a longtime friend of Gallo who first approached the scientist about starting a new laboratory in Baltimore.

But clearly, university officials are hoping that Gallo's center will also win greater prestige for a campus that has labored in the shadow of a cross-town behemoth, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

If the institute succeeds, it will do so through advances in the war on AIDS -- a front where Hopkins is entrenched as an international leader.

This week's festivities will be a heady beginning, with four Nobel laureates on the agenda.

They are Dr. David Baltimore of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Dr. Manfred Eigen of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen, Germany; Sir Aaron Klug of Cambridge University, Great Britain; and Dr. Hamilton O. Smith of the Hopkins School of Medicine.

Gallo's institute occupies half of the Medical Biotechnology Center, six stories of laboratories in a renovated warehouse on Lombard Street.

The building also houses a molecular biology and biophysics program headed by Dr. Jonathan Lederer, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Scientists in Gallo's institute also hold faculty appointments in the medical school.

Although Gallo moved into the building last spring, the center is still being furnished with lab equipment, research animals and other essentials.

It is opening months behind schedule, a problem rooted in the complexities of turning a department-store warehouse into modern research space.

About 75 scientists and support personnel work there, although Gallo hopes to expand that to 250 within a few years.

To the public, Gallo is known as the co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and the man who developed the screening test that has been used since 1984 to diagnose patients and ensure a safe blood supply.

But the foundation for those discoveries was laid in 1980, when he discovered a human retrovirus that causes a form of leukemia.

Called HTLV-1, it was the first virus shown to be a direct cause of cancer and the first in a category known as retroviruses to be tied to human disease. Later, the emerging AIDS epidemic was blamed on a retrovirus.

The institute's agenda is broader than AIDS, although three-quarters of its work will be directed toward the disease. If AIDS recedes as a human threat, Gallo said, the institute will shift its emphasis.

"I'm interested in tumor viruses, leukemia viruses, hepatitis and its role in cancer, and the papilloma virus and its role in cancer," he said.

Hepatitis has been linked to liver cancer, and the human papilloma virus to cervical cancer.

"We're also interested in chronic infections by herpes viruses," he said.

Gallo wants to pursue illnesses that are not known as viral diseases but may, in fact, have viral origins. One prospect is multiple sclerosis, a crippling neurological disorder.

He expects that collaboration will occur spontaneously among the scientists.

"I think a critical mass of people working on virology is nice to have," Gallo said. "You want to bring a bunch of people together who do basic research with clinical applications, with all kinds of diseases in mind."

Joining Gallo in setting the institute's course are three scientists who also left the government.

Dr. William Blattner, formerly senior epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health, has spent years tracking the natural history of AIDS through a high-risk population in the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

In particular, he wants to know what happens in the first hours, days and weeks, when the human immunodeficiency virus enters the bloodstream.

Once the virus takes root, it may take many years to trigger the disease known as AIDS. Whether the progress is fast or slow may depend on the amount of virus -- a "set-point" -- that establishes itself in the early stages of infection.

By understanding the mechanisms behind the set-point, scientists may find ways to stave off illness by fixing someone's viral load at a low level.

Dr. Robert Redfield, who headed the cancer research program at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, directs the institute's clinical activities, including trials of drugs and vaccines developed there.

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