'Science Fictions': AIDS virus furor

February 17, 2002|By John R. Alden | John R. Alden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, A Massive Cover-up, and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo, by John Crewdson. Little, Brown. 670 pages. $27.95.

Fifteen years ago, Robert Gallo was a star. A researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., he was famed as the discoverer of HTLV-3, the virus that causes AIDS. Gallo was collecting $100,000 a year from the key patent on the test for this virus, and he - and everyone else in the medical world - figured he would win the Nobel Prize.

Today, many in that same world consider Gallo a fraud. He was pushed out of the National Cancer Institute and now works in the far less prestigious Institute of Human Virology in downtown Baltimore. Gallo has admitted that researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris found the AIDS virus first, and Gallo's HTLV-3 has been shown to be identical to LAV, the version of the AIDS virus isolated by the French and given by them to Gallo.

No one knows whether someone in Gallo's lab stole the French virus or if it contaminated their samples through sloppy practice, and it really doesn't matter. What matters is that the world recognizes Gallo as a man who, in the words of television's Sam Donaldson, "almost got away with taking credit for something he hadn't done."

Gallo continues to insist that he did nothing wrong. Yes, he made mistakes, but so has every other scientist. His enemies, he says, smeared his name. And while investigators from the government's Office of Research Integrity found him guilty of scientific misconduct, that determination was withdrawn after Gallo appealed the finding.

In short, readers who want to understand this complicated story will have to wade through the details and make up their own minds. Fortunately, the book's author - a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Tribune - lays out these details with painstaking care. Yet why would anyone want to slog through more than 500 pages of difficult material to make up their minds about Robert Gallo?

One element of this book's appeal, for scandal-mongers and gossip mavens, is the obvious ill-will between the author and Gallo. Crewdson reports a plethora of incidents revealing Gallo as a posturing bully, and his data will convince many readers that Gallo engaged in scientific fraud. In return, according to footnote (a) in Chapter 19, Gallo once told the police he suspected Crewdson had broken into his house "to photograph scientific data and papers," and told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that Crewdson was "a dangerous psychotic."

Given the enmity between author and subject, can we trust the picture that Crewdson paints? It's a reviewer's job to make this call, and I say we can. The book's quotes and citations are exhaustively footnoted, and, Crewdson avers, "None of the dialogue in this book is reconstructed." His story hangs together in a complex but coherent whole.

Personalities aside, there are powerful reasons to get angry about the Gallo affair. People died, Crewdson demonstrates, because a blood test for AIDS based on a virus grown in Gallo's cell line was less accurate than a test developed by the Pasteur Institute. Yet for years, both Gallo and the bureaucrats running the Department of Health and Human Services were more concerned with collecting accolades and winning legal fights than with getting better tests into the hands of doctors and blood banks.

Is this, as Crewdson's preface claims, really "how scientists behave when the stakes are high"? No. The behavior he describes is far beyond the bounds of normal scientific competition, whatever the stakes involved. Nevertheless, this sorry tale does point out a series of problems with the way big-time science is done today.

First, the peer review system of determining what proposals get funded and what articles get published is easily corrupted when anonymity isn't protected and vindictive reviewers are allowed to stay in the system.

But worst of all is the notion that the number of times an author's name appears in print, in conference symposia, or in citations is a valid measure of that person's work. As depicted in this book, Gallo appears to have been driven by an almost desperate need for recognition. He wanted to be wined and dined; wanted seats on the stage at scientific conferences and big-name scientific awards. In science, publication is the route to such rewards, and all too often quantity counts for more than quality.

Gallo went after academic recognition like a multitasking commuter. During one two-year stretch, Gallo visited 42 overseas destinations, and during a four-year period he had his name on nearly 200 publications. This is big-time scientificating. But without big-time content, it's nothing but hot air. And as Crewdson shows, the biggest discoveries in Gallo's career - his claim to have identified the virus that causes AIDS and the patent on the AIDS blood test - both belong to someone else.

An adjunct associate research scientist in the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, John R. Alden, with a Ph.D. in anthropology, has long been familiar with the ins and outs of scientific gamesmanship. He had a cousin die of AIDS, and a hemophiliac friend who died of the disease after taking clotting factor derived from contaminated blood.

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