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Scientists Hail Gallo’s ‘Unsung’ Role in Nobel HIV/AIDS Discovery

News & Comment

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

When the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two French virologists for discovering and identifying the HIV virus, a number of scientists questioned why American scientist Robert Gallo wasn’t also named. He is generally credited as a co-discover of the HIV virus and the person most responsible for proving it causes AIDS.

The Nobel foundation obliquely acknowledged that situation by saying the prize went for the discovery of the virus, not for detection of the link between the virus and the AIDS disease (SI News and Comment, January/February 2009).

Biomedical scientists (106 in all) from seventeen countries have published a letter in a prominent scientific journal saying Gallo deserves equal credit. And a major event is planned in May honoring Gallo on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his co-discovery.

In a letter titled “Unsung Hero Robert C. Gallo” (Science, 323: 206, 2009), the international group of scientists say that while Nobel Prize recipients Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier “fully deserve the award, it is equally important to recognize” Gallo’s contributions.

“Gallo definitely proved HIV-1 as the cause of AIDS through the successful isolation and long-term cultivation of HIV-1 and developed a diagnostic kit that prevented new infections and saved thousands of lives. These contributions . . . warrant equal recognition. . . .”

The letter continues: “Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier isolated a virus but . . . could not establish whether it was the AIDS virus, an achievement accomplished by Gallo and colleagues just one year later. Gallo . . . learned to grow the virus and, furthermore, discovered its role, saved the blood supply, and opened the way for drug and vaccine development. Without Gallo’s contributions, the relevance of the virus to AIDS might not have been recognized and many thousands more lives would have been lost. Given the enormous impact of these developments on the lives of countless thousands globally, Gallo’s contributions should not go unrecognized.”

Gallo also has been outspoken against those who try to deny that HIV is the cause of AIDS (“AIDS: Denialism vs. Science,” September/October 2007).

An endnote to the Science letter says the letter-writing initiative was done independently of Gallo’s influence. The coordinator of the letter effort is Guido Poli, head of the AIDS Immunopathogenesis Unit at San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy.

Poli says he and the letter writers, many of them leaders in the HIV field, felt the Nobel committee had an unfortunate anti-Gallo bias. Poli worked at the National Institutes of Health for seven years and witnessed the development of AIDS research during its first years.

He told the Skeptical Inquirer he hadn’t heard from Gallo directly, “although people in his staff told me that he was happy about the letter.”

May 4, 2009, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Gallo’s paper in Science reporting his findings identifying the AIDS virus. To commemorate the discovery, the University of Maryland School of Medicine is hosting a three-day celebratory event in Baltimore May 9–11. It includes a gala honoring Gallo, “Celebrating a Visionary’s Quest for Discovery,” and a symposium, “25 Years After Discovering HIV as the Cause of AIDS.” The National Cancer Institute, where Gallo did his research, is co-sponsor.

Poli told SI he has been invited as a speaker to the celebration. “I interpret that as a way to say ‘thanks!’”

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.