Shrugging off a bout with the common cold, Dr. Robert C. Gallo opened his Institute of Human Virology yesterday with a gathering of 500 scientists discussing issues that ranged from rain forest destruction to cancer control.
The modern center, which occupies half of a renovated warehouse on West Lombard Street, represents an effort by the University of Maryland to leap to the forefront of research into AIDS and other viral illnesses.
Dr. David Baltimore, one of four Nobel laureates on the agenda, saluted Gallo's decision to launch the institute.
"Virology was in decline until HIV burst upon the scene and reminded us of all we don't know about the natural world," said Baltimore, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The opening, which included a ribbon-cutting ceremony by government and university officials, was billed "A Celebration of Biological Science." The eclectic gathering included talks on virology, artificial intelligence, bio-diversity and the public's appetite for science.
Researchers from across the United States and several European nations were on hand to celebrate with Gallo, who announced two years ago that he would end a 30-year career with the National Cancer Institute to start a research center on the University of Maryland's campus in Baltimore.
The crowd was too large for the six-story, $41 million building that houses Gallo's laboratories, so the meeting is being held in a dimly lighted medical school building a few blocks away. The event concludes today.
"It's a wonderful cross-section," Gallo said in a crowded anteroom between speeches. "We wanted outstanding people and people who could tell a good story."
In one of the more colorful talks, Dr. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University displayed a color slide of a towering tree that forms part of the rain forest canopy in Borneo, where he and colleagues have studied an astonishing range of life forms.
Anyone wishing to scale its heights must climb 80 feet before reaching the first branches. Realizing this, scientists take a reverse route, dropping from airships and cranes.
The tree is infested with swarming ants and stinging bees, prompting Wilson to say, "I can assure you that if Tarzan had gotten up there as depicted in the movies, he wouldn't have lasted 15 minutes."
Wilson, a biological theoretician, drew laughter, but the point of his lecture was serious: The human race is running out of time to preserve species-rich rain forests that may harbor treatments for cancer and other diseases.
Later in the program, pediatric surgeon Judah Folkman spoke of his recent successes in shrinking tumors in laboratory mice. Folkman, also of Harvard, saw cancerous growths "melt away" when he administered two compounds that block the formation of the blood vessels that tumors need for nourishment.
Technically speaking, he didn't kill the tumors -- he starved them.
Also yesterday, Lippincott-Raven Publishers of Philadelphia announced that the virology institute would be home to a new publication, Journal of Human Virology. The editors will be Gallo and two colleagues at the institute, Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. William Blattner.
During the ribbon-cutting, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke reflected glowingly on their decision to invest a total of $12 million in public money to get the center started. The two have banked on Gallo to stimulate the state's growing biotechnology industry.
Glendening, in particular, was instrumental in wooing Gallo with a promise of state money and modern laboratories. The governor, whose brother died of AIDS, said he began his recruitment effort by writing to Gallo in the weeks before he took office in 1995.
"This is not what you call a traditional economic development project," Glendening said. "What we have here today is part of our world competitiveness, as well as our regional competitiveness."
Schmoke noted that AIDS is the leading cause of death in Baltimore among men and women ages 25 to 41 and added, "It is our hope the answer to this terrible problem can be found right here."
Pub Date: 11/19/96