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Robert Gallo Robert Gallo

Born: 1937
Nationality: American
Occupation: virologist

Robert C. Gallo, one of the best-known biomedical researchers in the United States, is considered the codiscoverer, along with Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute, of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Gallo established that the virus causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), something which Montagnier had not been able to do, and he developed the blood test for HIV, which remains a central tool in efforts to control the disease. Gallo also discovered the human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV) and the human T-cell growth factor interleukin-2.

Gallo's initial work on the isolation and identification of the AIDS virus has been the subject of a number of allegations, resulting in a lengthy investigation and official charges of scientific misconduct which were overturned on appeal. Although he has now been exonerated, the ferocity of the controversy has tended to obscure the importance of his contributions both to AIDS research and biomedical research in general. As Malcolm Gladwell observed in 1990 in THE WASHINGTON POST: "Gallo is easily one of the country's most famous scientists, frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender, and a man whose research publications were cited by other researchers publishing their own work during the last decade more often than those of any other scientist in the world."

Gallo was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on March 23, 1937, to Francis Anton and Louise Mary (Ciancuilli) Gallo. He grew up in the house that his Italian grandparents bought after they came to the United States. His father worked long hours at the welding company which he owned. The dominant memory of Gallo's youth was of the illness and death of his only sibling, Judy, from childhood leukemia. The disease brought Gallo into contact with the nonfamily member who most influenced his life, Dr. Marcus Cox, the pathologist who diagnosed her disease in 1948. During his senior year in high school, an injury kept Gallo off the high school basketball team and forced him to think about his future. He began to spend time with Cox, visiting him at the hospital, even assisting in postmortem examinations. When Gallo entered college, he knew he wanted a career in biomedical research.

Gallo attended Providence College, where he majored in biology, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1959. He continued his schooling at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he got an introduction to medical research. In 1961 he worked as a summer research fellow in Alan Erslev's laboratory at Jefferson. His work studying the pathology of oxygen deprivation in coal miners led to his first scientific publication in 1962, while he was still a medical student.

In 1961 Gallo married Mary Jane Hayes, a woman he knew from his hometown whom he had begun dating in his first year of college. Together they had two children. Gallo graduated from medical school in 1963; on the advice of Erslev, he went to the University of Chicago because it had a reputation as a major center for blood-cell biology, Gallo's research interest. From 1963 to 1965 he did research on the biosynthesis of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood.

Treats Cancer Patients

In 1965 Gallo was appointed to the position of clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. He spent much of his first year at NIH caring for cancer patients. Despite the often depressing work environment, he observed some early successes at treating cancer patients with chemotherapy. Children were being cured of the very form of childhood leukemia that killed his sister almost twenty years before. In 1966, Gallo was appointed to his first full-time research position, as an associate of Seymour Perry, who was head of the medicine department. Perry was studying how white blood cells grow in various forms of leukemia. In his laboratory Gallo studied the enzymes involved in the synthesis of the components of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the carrier of genetic information.

The expansion of the NIH and the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971 led to the creation of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the NIH. Gallo was appointed head of the new laboratory. He had become intrigued with the possibility that certain kinds of cancer had viral origins, and he set up his new laboratory to study human retroviruses. Retroviruses are types of viruses which possess the ability to penetrate other cells and splice their own genetic material into the genes of their hosts, eventually taking over all of their reproductive functions. At the time Gallo began his work, retroviruses had been found in animals; the question was whether they existed in humans. His research involved efforts to isolate a virus from victims of certain kinds of leukemia, and he and his colleagues were able to view a retrovirus through electron microscopes. In 1975, Gallo and Robert E. Gallagher announced that they had discovered a human leukemia virus, but other laboratories were unable to replicate their results. Scientists to whom they had sent samples for independent confirmation had found two different retroviruses not from humans, but from animals. The samples had been contaminated by viruses from a monkey or a chimp and the idea that a virus could cause cancer was publicly ridiculed.

Despite the humiliation Gallo suffered and the damage this premature announcement did to his reputation, he continued his efforts to isolate a human retrovirus. He turned his attention to T-cells, white blood cells which are an important part of the body's immune system, and developed a substance called T-cell growth factor (later called interleukin-2), which would sustain them outside the human body. The importance of this growth factor was that it enabled Gallo and his team to sustain cancerous T-cells long enough to discover whether a retrovirus existed within them. These techniques allowed Gallo and his team to isolate a previously unknown virus from a leukemia patient. He named the virus human T-cell leukemia virus, or HTLV, and he published this finding in SCIENCE in 1981. This time his findings were confirmed, and as Michael Specter noted in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, Gallo was "transformed from a loser to a star."

Develops Blood Test for the AIDS Virus

It was Gallo's experience with viral research that made him so important in the effort to identify the cause of AIDS, after that disease had first been characterized by doctors in the United States. In further studies of HTLV, Gallo had established that it could be transmitted by breast-feeding, sexual intercourse, and blood transfusions. He also observed that the incidence of cancers caused by this virus was concentrated in Africa and the Caribbean. HTLV had these and other characteristics in common with what was then known about AIDS, and Gallo was one of the first scientists to hypothesize that the disease was caused by a virus. In 1982, the National Cancer Institute formed an AIDS task force with Gallo as its head. In this capacity he made available to the scientific community the research methods he had developed for HTLV, and among those whom he provided with some early technical assistance was Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Gallo tried throughout 1983 to get the AIDS virus to grow in culture, using the same growth factor that had worked in growing HTLV, but he was not successful. Finally, a member of Gallo's group named Mikulas Popovic developed a method to grow the virus in a line of T-cells. The method consisted, in effect, of mixing samples from various patients into a kind of a cocktail, using perhaps ten different strains of the virus at a time, so there was a higher chance that one would survive. This innovation allowed the virus to be studied, and observing the similarities to the retroviruses he had previously discovered, Gallo called it HTLV-3. In 1984, he and his colleagues published their findings in SCIENCE. Gallo and the other scientists in his laboratory were able to establish that this virus caused AIDS, and they developed a blood test for the virus. In a 1993 issue of NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, Nicholas Wade writes: "After twelve grim years, Gallo's blood test is still the only weapon of real value that scientists have yet managed to devise against this baffling disease."

Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

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Source: From NOTABLE TWENTIETH-CENTURY SCIENTISTS. Gale Research, 1995. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.


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