Nobel panel snubs Gallo in HIV prize

Co-discoverer of AIDS virus is not recognized with others

October 07, 2008|By Stephanie Desmon AND KELLY BREWINGTON and Kelly Brewington | Stephanie Desmon AND KELLY BREWINGTON and Kelly Brewington,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com and kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

Twenty-five years after the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, two French researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine yesterday for their role in that scientific breakthrough.

Perhaps more notable than who won the award is who did not: Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the University of Maryland virologist who has long been credited as a co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus and whose early work led to a blood test for HIV that is believed to have saved millions of lives.

Though many in the field said they thought that a long-simmering debate over Gallo's exact role in the initial discovery had been settled and that Gallo and the French team should share credit, the Nobel committee apparently felt differently. Some scientists said yesterday that Gallo deserved to at least split medicine's highest honor.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's editions incorrectly said that Dr. Robert C. Gallo's Institute of Human Virology is part of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. It is part of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

"The people who won the prize are very deserving," said Dr. John E. Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, where Gallo did his AIDS research. "But it seems strange to have left Bob out."

The award was shared this year among three scientists, with half of the award going to a German virologist, Harald zur Hausen, who discovered that the human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer, and half to the two French AIDS pioneers.

"We gave the prize for the discovery of the virus. The two to whom we gave the prize, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, discovered the virus," Hans Joernvall of the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, which awards the prize, told Agence France-Presse.

Acknowledging that Gallo had "done a lot of other work" in the field, Joernvall noted that he and the two French scientists now "agree that the discovery was made in Paris."

But Montagnier, who has been a colleague and rival of Gallo's for decades, said the American researcher should have been recognized.

"It is certain that he deserved this as much as us two," Montagnier told the Associated Press in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he is attending an international AIDS conference.

Gallo, who runs the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore, told an AP reporter who woke him at home early yesterday that he was "disappointed." He later left for South Africa and could not be reached for further comment, but he released a statement congratulating the French scientists.

Colleagues said Gallo was besieged with e-mails and phone calls from scientists around the world, many complaining that an injustice had been done.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, said the Nobel Prize tends to be given to those who first identify a new discovery.

"I don't think it's a critique of Gallo. It's a statement about the very first observation that is made. This is how they decide," he said. "They generally make their decisions based on what they judge to be the first seminal observation as opposed to what came from that discovery. That's their judgment.

"It does not detract from the contributions that Dr. Gallo has made."

The Nobel Prize might not put to rest what at times has been a bitter scientific feud spanning two continents. And Gallo, while seen yesterday in some circles as a victim, has often been a less than sympathetic character, seen as abrasive and self-promoting.

In the early 1980s, Gallo, whose research at NCI had focused on cancer-causing retroviruses, and Montagnier, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, were each working on isolating the AIDS virus. In 1983, Montagnier identified a virus he called LAV but was unable to prove it caused AIDS. Gallo, nearly a year later, published a paper on his virus, called HTLV-3, establishing that it caused AIDS. Gallo is credited with being the first to grow the virus in a lab, which paved the way for HIV testing and the screening of donated blood.

But a controversy erupted soon after Gallo's publication. There were allegations that Gallo's virus was actually Montagnier's and that he had improperly used it without credit to the Frenchman for first isolating the virus.

The dispute triggered investigations by the National Institutes of Health and by Congress. There was a lawsuit. It was finally settled in 1987 by a highly unusual agreement between the United States and France, with a joint announcement by President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.

"I was on the original committee that examined the evidence against Gallo," said Edmund Tramont, who now directs the NIAID's division of AIDS. "We examined all the data and came to the unequivocal conclusion that he did all the work on his own. And that what he discovered and what he wrote, that HIV is a retrovirus that infects T-cells, that it was the cause of AIDS was unequivocal.

"He had in his lab previous work that was necessary to isolate the virus and others followed in his footsteps and duplicated what he had done."

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