After a presentation in front of a crowd of about 140, Dr. Robert Gallo sat in an empty auditorium at RTI International and compared the human immunodeficiency virus to Mount Everest.
Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, has studied HIV for nearly 30 years.
In 1983, he was locked in a controversial race with French virologist Luc Montagnier to identify HIV as the cause of AIDS. The research results earned Gallo a 1986 Lasker award, also known as America’s Nobel. Montagnier received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008.
The HIV discoveries by Gallo and Montagnier led to an antibody test that helped rid blood banks of the retrovirus and aided in the development of AZT, the first AIDS medicine, at Burroughs Wellcome in Research Triangle Park.
During a presentation Gallo gave Thursday at RTI – during his latest visit to RTP, long a hot spot for HIV/AIDS research – he outlined the clues he followed on the path to identify HIV and the work he’s doing now to develop a vaccine.
After the presentation, he also talked about trying to find a cure for a virus that’s responsible for one of the worst pandemics in human history.
“We know more about this virus than we know about any virus,” he said. “If you knew every hole, rock, crevice, cliff, plant of Mount Everest, could you walk up it? You couldn’t do it, even if you knew everything about it. But you’d have a better chance, because you know the paths.”
Listen to the entire interview:
The race to identify HIV made him world famous, but Gallo is first and foremost a prolific medical researcher who was attracted to retroviruses at a time when most of his colleagues thought the industrialized world was over infectious diseases and retroviruses couldn’t infect humans.
In 1980, Gallo and his team at the National Cancer Institute discovered HTLV-1, the first human retrovirus. HTLV-1 can cause cancers and is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. More than 20 million people worldwide are infected with HTLV-1, particularly in South America, the Caribbean, Japan and central Africa.
A paper about the HTLV-1 discovery was initially rejected from publication, Gallo said, but the concepts and technologies he and his team had learned helped in identifying HIV a few years later.
In 1986, he and his team discovered a new human herpes virus that was later shown to cause Roseola, also known as baby measles.
In the late 1980s, Duke University tried to recruit Gallo and his group. The offer included about $100 million to establish a virology institute at Duke, Gallo said. But RTP and the Southeast felt foreign to the son of Italian immigrants. Today, he said, he considers it a mistake that he didn’t take Duke’s offer.
His most recent work at the University of Maryland includes an HIV vaccine, which he is developing with Profectus BioSciences, a company he cofounded, and the U.S. Army. The vaccine aims to block HIV from entering its main target, immune cells that kill intruders, and targets preventing infection like the mosaic HIV vaccine that Duke experts are readying for an early-stage clinical trial. (More about the mosaic vaccine here.)
Gallo said he’s also in the process of forming a global virus network by linking research centers of excellence working on all classes of viruses.