Two ex-rivals join to seek AIDS vaccine

Scientists to begin international testing at UM in Baltimore

`We have become friends'

Researchers agree to make history, not rehash it

February 14, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Once bitter rivals, two of the world's best-known AIDS researchers shook hands and formed a partnership yesterday to try to raise millions of dollars and conduct AIDS vaccine trials.

Dr. Luc Montagnier, whose lab in Paris discovered the virus that causes AIDS in 1983, and Dr. Robert Gallo, a former competitor who helped to develop a blood test for the disease, hope to test five potential AIDS vaccines in Baltimore, Africa and elsewhere.

During a news conference at the State House in Annapolis, Gallo said that Montagnier would become an adjunct professor at Gallo's Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The two joked about their past rivalry, which sparked a clash between the French and U.S. governments in the 1980s, when both scientists claimed to be the first to discover the virus.

"There was a period of conflict, but we never stopped sharing information, sharing ideas," said Gallo. "And over the last 10 years ... we have become friends like we were friends before."

As if performing a stand-up comedy routine, Montagnier replied: "We met for the first time in the 1970s. ... You were spending some time in a bar."

Gallo cut him off: "Nobody here believe that."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was acting as host for the event, stepped up to the microphone to interrupt their jovial back and forth. "Remember, you have an audience here for your reminiscing," she said, nodding toward the audience of 30 scientists and journalists.

The two scientists have met at conferences and worked together on a charitable project in the past, but not on research since their falling-out in the early 1980s.

Their public display of good will yesterday occurred just before the scheduled publication of a book that recounts the bitterness and recriminations of the Gallo/Montagnier dispute.

A federal agency found Gallo guilty of scientific misconduct in 1992, but dropped the charges after he appealed. John Crewdson, a Chicago Tribune reporter, re-examines the issue in his book Science Fictions, which concludes that Gallo falsely claimed to have found the virus first and then went on to win awards and money based on that assertion.

Gallo declined to comment on the book, but he issued a press release yesterday that acknowledged that Montagnier's lab first discovered the virus later called HIV.

"Both scientists agree that it is now most important to move forward and make history, not rehash it," the release said.

The Gallo/Montagnier Program for International Viral Collaboration will work with the United Nations to develop research programs in areas with large numbers of acquired immune deficiency syndrome patients in Baltimore, Rome, Montreal, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Central America, Asia and other locations.

But first, the scientists will have to raise at least $3 million to $4 million to start the organization and organize the research, said Dr. William Blattner, director of the Institute of Human Virology.

The program hopes to run clinical trials to test at least five potential vaccines to prevent the spread of AIDS and treat those with the disease.

The first trial, which has funding through the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, supported by Microsoft magnate Bill Gates, will test the safety of an oral vaccine in a few dozen healthy people in Baltimore this year, said George Lewis, director of the division of vaccine research at the Institute of Human Virology.

This potential vaccine uses salmonella bacteria to try to stimulate an immune response to protect healthy people from HIV. After testing the drug in Baltimore, researchers hope to test it in Uganda.

Among several other projects, the partnership also plans to test the "tat toxoid vaccine," which targets a molecule called "tat" that the HIV virus uses to disable the human immune system's response to disease.

AIDS researchers around the world have been trying for more than a decade to develop a vaccine to protect people from the disease. It's been a difficult task, in part because the virus continually changes and imbeds itself in the DNA of its victims.

An estimated 25 million people have died from AIDS since 1981, and another 40 million are believed to be infected, many in Africa and poor nations elsewhere.

Patricia Thomas, author of a recent book, Big Shot: Passion, Politics and the Struggle for an AIDS Vaccine, said several dozen potential vaccines have been tried in small-scale trials. But progress has been limited by the reluctance of drug companies to invest in AIDS vaccines, which they don't think will be profitable, she said.

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