Gallo lab falls short of economic promise

Institute: After five years, it has yet to spin off business but draws praise for its AIDS research and city clinics.

February 18, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

When Maryland officials offered $12 million to lure prominent AIDS researcher Dr. Robert C. Gallo to Baltimore in 1996, they sold taxpayers on the idea that his lab would not only help cure the disease but also the city's economic malaise.

More than five years later, Gallo's Institute of Human Virology at 725 W. Lombard St. is not the economic engine it was advertised to be. It has yet to spin off any companies or attract any biotechnology firms to the state.

But the lab wins praise for its research, which has turned up tantalizing clues that could lead to AIDS vaccines. And the institute runs three highly regarded clinics that treat 2,500 people with AIDS in the city, many poor and uninsured.

In other words, the brash 64-year-old scientist has continued his record as an innovative, if sometimes over-advertised, researcher. And although he has tried to heal the wounds of his past, he continues to be haunted by an 18-year-old dispute over whether he was the first to discover the AIDS virus.

Last week, Gallo reached out to his former rival in that dispute, Dr. Luc Montagnier of France, and offered him an adjunct professorship in Gallo's center at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. They have formed a partnership in an ambitious project to perform AIDS vaccine research in Baltimore, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Their news conference Wednesday occurred just before the publication of a book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist that re-examines the Gallo/Montagnier dispute, which led to a clash between the governments of France and the United States in the 1980s.

John Crewdson's book, Science Fictions, concludes that Gallo won fame and money from false claims that he was the first to isolate the virus. The author is skeptical about Gallo's move to Baltimore, saying he left the National Cancer Institute under a cloud and has failed to achieve anything significant in his new lab.

Gallo's supporters strongly dispute those conclusions, saying his institute has made several important discoveries, has won eight U.S. patents and is host to one of the world's premier AIDS conferences.

During an interview last week, Gallo compared the criticism directed at him to attacks aimed at Madonna, who has been subjected to unflattering biographies.

"I am going to quote Madonna," he said. "Madonna said, `There are three biographies about me. They are all slanderous. None of them interviewed me or anybody close to me, neither my friends or my closest colleagues. But everybody has to make a living, I suppose.'"(Crewdson, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, said he did interview Gallo and would have talked with him more if Gallo hadn't canceled a meeting.)

Gallo said he has moved on. He is focused on a more important goal: stopping a disease that has killed about 25 million people worldwide, as many as the bubonic plague of the 14th century.

Gallo bristled when asked whether his lab had lived up to its promise as an economic development engine for the city and state.

"I don't know who made the promise," he said. "When it was said at the signing ceremony that it would also be [an economic engine], I commented that I promise that we would make a very good institute of biomedical science. But I'm sure not going to promise that I'm going to convert overnight into J.P. Morgan. ... I have no business experience, and it's not my forte."

Gallo said his institute has applied for 19 U.S. patents and has gotten more than one a year approved. The patents are not yet generating income, he said, because the institute is being cautious about moving forward with its commercial ventures.

The lab, with about 200 employees and an annual budget of about $25 million, receives more than $15 million a year in grants from the National Institutes of Heath and other sources. Gallo's institute soon plans to launch a company called Maryland Biotherapeutics Inc., which would market vaccine technology developed by Gallo and his colleagues.

"I expect in the next 10 years that this place will double in size, and I expect we'll spin off at least three companies ... and I expect bioterrorism [defense] business," Gallo said. "This is not the time Baltimore wants to pull in its horns regarding biotechnology."

The institute attracts about five times as much money from the federal government, drug industry and nonprofit organizations as it gets from the state, which contributes about $3 million a year, according to lab officials.

A disagreement over continuing state funding nearly drove Gallo to leave Maryland in 1998, he said.

The institute had asked the state to increase its annual appropriation by $1.5 million for the next two years. Concerned that the lab did not have a good business plan, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee instead proposed cutting $1 million from the lab's budget for the next year and halting state funding after that.

After an outcry from supporters of Gallo's research, the committee reversed itself and allowed state funding to continue.

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