Dr. Robert Gallo, the Medical Sleuth Who Tracked the Cause of AIDS, Now Tries to Find the Cure

updated 09/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's nearing 5 o'clock at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., but in a clutter of small laboratories on the sixth floor of Building 37, a dozen researchers show no sign of calling it a day. Wearing cutoffs and polo shirts under creased white lab coats, the men and women hunch over flasks teeming with viruses and test tubes brimming with diseased blood, culling data in their urgent search for a vaccine and cure for AIDS. Suddenly Dr. Robert C. Gallo, 47, the flamboyant chief investigator in this medical manhunt, barges into a lab. Cornering three researchers, he grills them on their latest experiments with HTLV-3, the virus he first identified as the deadly cause of AIDS. "How soon? How soon?" he presses them. Concerned people around the world are waiting for the answer.

Last month, for the first time, scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) began injecting human volunteers with experimental AIDS treatments based on Gallo's research. The perfectionist researcher is still impatient. "We've done more in six weeks than many labs do in six years," he says. "But in terms of doing something for the people who have the disease, I wish we were going faster."

The search for a weapon to fight AIDS grows more urgent by the day. "I don't want to start a panic," says Gallo, "but AIDS is spreading faster than we would have expected." To date AIDS, the acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, has claimed 5,896 victims, killing 2,688. Transmitted mainly through intimate sexual contact or contaminated blood products, AIDS undermines the body's defenses against infections and cancers. At first thought to be prevalent only among homosexuals, intravenous drug users, Haitians and hemophiliacs, AIDS is cropping up among women, children and heterosexual men as well. Cases have been found in more than 30 countries, as far distant as Australia, Sweden and Trinidad, with 10 a day being reported in the U.S. alone to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Says Gallo, "The numbers are going to continue to rise until we do something about it."

Gallo and the rest of the medical community hope that the experimental treatments being tried on human subjects now will help solve that chilling problem. Though the tests represent only a first tentative step and involve only a handful of NCI's 120 AIDS patients, "none of these experiments would have been possible without Gallo's discoveries," says Dr. Samuel Broder, who is directing the clinical investigations. "The fact that we now have a virus in hand for a disease only recognized in 1981 is a remarkable achievement. Gallo's identification of HTLV-3 represents an epoch-making discovery."

When Gallo accepted the position of chief AIDS sleuth at NCI in 1982, he brashly predicted that the cause of the disease would be found in two years. "AIDS was a mystery," he says, "but I think of myself as a detective." Gallo had a hunch the culprit was related to a leukemia virus he'd found in 1980. Called human T cell leukemia/lymphoma virus (HTLV), it produces a telltale enzyme "fingerprint" in the blood of victims. To test his hypothesis Gallo enlisted co-workers at NCI as his "first lieutenants" and assembled a team of top researchers from cancer centers around the world.

The researchers took months to isolate HTLV-3; it has a sinister trick of disappearing once it has killed a cell. But when they found a way to mass-produce the virus, the team had their suspect cornered. To verify Gallo's findings Dr. James Curran, director of the 100-member AIDS investigative team in Atlanta, sent 205 anonymous blood samples—some healthy, some AIDS-infected, some tainted by hepatitis—to Gallo for testing. Gallo identified nearly every one correctly. "I knew before I got there that I had the answer," says Gallo. "But I had to prove the race was over."

Like many modern scientific accomplishments, Gallo's discovery of the AIDS virus came amid competition and controversy. A year ago a French team headed by Dr. Luc Montagnier announced that it had isolated an AIDS virus. But, says Dr. Max Essex of Harvard, a collaborator with both the French and U.S. groups, "the reality is that without Gallo's observations, no one would have taken Montagnier seriously." So far the rivalry has stalled a comparison of results. "Bob stepped on a lot of toes at the press conference when he tried to preempt the French discovery in front of the TV cameras," says one leading AIDS virologist. "If he was trying to go for the Nobel Prize, as a lot of people think, it may have backfired over this."

Gallo has never avoided competition, in or outside the lab. He often invites staffers to his Bethesda home on Sundays to relax with backyard games of volleyball and water polo, but in sports, says one co-worker, "Gallo doesn't just like to win, he insists on winning." Gallo recently quit playing tennis with his wife, Mary Jane, 46, when she began beating him regularly. "Since he's gotten a taste of the limelight, he doesn't like it if I'm noticed first," says Mary Jane, a striking blonde. "I've had to learn not to steal the show." Gallo says his competitiveness is "a basic instinct. Everything I do is competitive, in science and in my life. I want to be something better than the best I've ever seen."

But a personal loss has also driven Gallo in his lifelong quest for a cure to cancer. The son of a welding-company owner, he grew up in middle-class Waterbury, Conn. with a fascination for biology. When he was 13, his 8-year-old sister was diagnosed as having leukemia and underwent treatment at Boston's Children's Hospital in a pioneering chemotherapy program. The memory of her suffering before her death still haunts him. "She was emaciated, her mouth was full of blood, and her face was slightly jaundiced. I remember opening the door to see her and almost passing out. It was horrible." Even today, Gallo admits, "I don't like personal contacts with cancer patients. It's too draining. They're usually frightened, which makes me nervous. And that takes away from my concentrating on research."

Right now Gallo's team is working to decode HTLV-3's genes so that they can develop an AIDS vaccine by synthesizing the virus' protein shell without its lethal core. "It's like putting together a 10,000-piece puzzle," says colleague Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal. Success may lie two to three years off, but few doubt that Gallo will achieve it. Says NCI Director Dr. Vincent DeVita, "There are all kinds of brilliant scientists, some who add one piece of information on top of another, and others who tend to leap over ideas and move in new directions. Bob is one of the adventurous ones. I wish I had a few more dozen researchers like him. They make the big discoveries."

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