In the search for the cause of AIDS, two labs and the titanic egos of the men that ran them took center stage
The origin of AIDS has presented numerous puzzles to scientists since the first recognized cases appeared in the early 1980s. Until 1984 its cause was the subject of fierce debate. Scientists, public health authorities and gay community leaders blamed everything from a promiscuous flight attendant to a suspect experiment involving the clotting factor given to hemophiliacs.
There was a possibility later proven to be the case that a handful of cases known in 1981 were the first of many, that an infectious agent was responsible. At the time, health experts had no idea how rapidly the disease was spreading. It so happened that the new syndrome exceeded their worst fears.
That report produced a crescendo of activity by researchers. And in the search for the cause of AIDS, two labs and the titanic egos of the men that ran them took center stage.
Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris and Dr. Anthony Gallo of the National Cancer Institute in Washington both raced to find the cause of the disease.
On January 23, 1983, Montagnier found a suspect virus he called LAV (Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus). Montagnier published his findings in May 1983 so that other researchers could test his results, a standard procedure.
In July, the Pasteur Institute sent a sample of LAV to Gallo. Another sample of LAV was sent in September, and by December, Gallo’s lab was successfully cultivating LAV.
But Gallo had his own theory of what caused AIDS. A few years earlier, in his search for the cause of cancer, Gallo had discovered two retroviruses that looked similar, which he called HTLV-1 and HTLV-2 (Human T-cell Leukemia Virus). In December 1983, he submitted a paper for publication proposing the theory that an HTLV-type retrovirus was the cause of AIDS.
Then, on April 23, 1984, Margaret Heckler, the secretary of health and human services, announced that Gallo had isolated the virus which caused AIDS, that it was named HTLV-III, and that there would soon be a commercially available test able to detect the virus with “essentially 100 percent certainty.”
Dr. Gallo stood before the press conference at the National Cancer Institute to announce that he had discovered the virus. What he neglected to mention was that Montagnier had also identified what turned out to be the same virus. The two institutes had previously shared samples; they agreed to publish together and even make a joint announcement. But when the press got wind of the news, the NCI felt compelled to proceed without the French.
“If I could relive those days, I wish they had been at the press conference,” Gallo said. “I was a little swept away.”
At the press conference, Gallo showed pictures of HTLV-III. But it didn’t look anything like HTLV-1 or HTLV-2, and it was hard to see how they could be of the same family. As it turned out, the picture of HTLV-3 was actually a picture of the LAV virus sent to Gallo by Montagnier.
The cause of AIDS had been discovered by Gallo. Or was it?
The French didn’t think so. The picture of Gallo’s HTLV-3 was indisputably a picture of Montagnier’s LAV virus.
On the same day Gallo announced that he had found the cause of AIDS, he filed a U.S. patent application for a blood test that would detect signs of the virus in people.
By May 17, private companies were already applying for licences to develop a commercial test that would detect evidence of the virus in blood. In addition to its usefulness for patients, a test was wanted to screen the nation’s supply of donated blood.
In 1985, a blood test, ELISA, became available that measures antibodies to HIV, which thereby detects the body’s immune response to HIV. This blood test remains the primary method for diagnosing HIV infection.
But there was also considerable and often acrimonious controversy, including accusations that Gallo improperly used a sample of HIV produced at the Pasteur Institute.
And so began a three-year, high-level diplomatic negotiation between the U.S. and France.
The controversy which would embroil the American scientist’s career for almost the next decade began when the United States government denied the French scientists a patent for the AIDS test and awarded one to Gallo’s team instead. The patent would be worth about $100 million a year in sales and $100,000 personally to Gallo.
The Pasteur Institute challenged the patent in court. Gallo did not deny that Montagnier had preceded him in isolating the virus, but he argued that it was proof of the causal relationship and the development of the blood test which were most important, and he maintained that these advances had been accomplished using a virus which had been independently isolated in his lab.
This first stage of the controversy ended in a legal settlement that was highly unusual for the scientific community: Gallo and Montagnier agreed out of court to share equal credit for their discovery. This settlement followed a review of records from Gallo’s laboratory and rested on the assumption that the virus Gallo had discovered was different from the one Montagnier had sent him. “It could have happened differently,” said Montagnier. “But everybody has their personality.”
The two scientists continued to dispute each other’s claims until 1987, when they finally agreed to share credit for the discovery of HIV after the president of the United States and the prime minister of France announced a joint agreement on the issue the first time a medical research question had reached this level of political negotiation. More important, the identification of HIV provided a specific target for blood-screening tests and for scientists around the world conducting research to defeat AIDS.
In November 1990, the Office of Scientific Integrity at the National Institutes of Health commissioned a group at Roche to analyze archival samples established at the Pasteur Institute and the National Cancer Institute between 1983 and 1985. They concluded that the origin of the HIV isolate discovered by Gallo was the same as that discovered by Montagnier.
Today it is generally agreed that Montagnier’s group was the first to identify HIV, although Gallo’s group insists it contributed significantly to demonstrating that it causes AIDS. Furthermore, Gallo’s group claims they were the first to grow the virus in an immortalized cell line, leading to the development of blood tests for HIV and the ability to screen donated blood for this virus. Also, Gallo insisted the work of Montagnier had relied on a technique previously developed by Gallo for growing T cells in the laboratory.
Gallo has often been criticized for being extremely competitive and has been accused of stealing discoveries from others. Critics argue that his fight to patent a device to detect whether blood is infected with AIDS delayed the technology’s use for a year.
Gallo is currently the director of the Institute for Human Virology, an institution affiliated with the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.
Montagnier has received more than 20 major awards, including the Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur, the Lasker Prize, and the Gairdner Prize.
In 2002 Gallo and Montagnier together announced their partnership in a global research endeavor designed to speed the discovery of AIDS vaccines believed by scientist worldwide to be our greatest hope in halting the HIV/AIDS epidemic worldwide.
Created under the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention working under the auspices of UNESCO, the Program for International Viral Collaboration will be co-directed by the two pioneering scientists, both universally recognized for their contributions to AIDS research over the last two decades.
“HIV/AIDS is worse. It is a chronic disease with no known cure and, like the common flu, continues to present new strains, making it difficult to treat, prevent, understand or anticipate,” Dr. Gallo said.
Dr. Montagnier echoes this sentiment. “HIV/AIDS is presently the greatest of threats to mankind and, unlike the Plague, it will not go away. This will occur only when medical science develops a treatment accessible to all and a successful vaccine to prevent infection.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 7, 2006