Itâ€™s Nobel Prize season again, and Monday morning delivered news of the first gold medal and wad of dough. The 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine went to three virus hunters, one who discovered the human papilloma virus (HPV), the cause of many cervical cancers, and two who isolated the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the source of the AIDS scourge.
For anyone concerned with sexual health, itâ€™s gratifying that scienceâ€™s top honor has gone to researchers who devoted their careers to tracking the most deadly sexually transmitted diseasesâ€”in the early â€˜80s, at a time when professional stigma was virulent. And it may not be stretching advocacy to see the choice as a subtle slapdown of governments worldwide, including the US and others acting at its behest, that persist in promoting an abstinence-only approach to HIV prevention. It may also increase acceptance of, and demand for, the HPV vaccines recently developed and marketed by Merck and GSK.
But the big news, of course, is that neither of the two virologists honored for nabbing HIV was Robert Gallo, who has long been recognized, in official histories, as the â€œco-discoverer,â€ with Franceâ€™s Luc Montagnier. No, the judges at the Karolinska Institute tapped Montagnier and his former colleague FranÃ§oise BarrÃ©-Sinoussi, snubbing Gallo in their own attempt at revisionist history. The AP titled its coverage â€œNobel Is Postscript to Bitter 1980s HIV Disputeâ€; Reuters chose â€œNobel Medicine Prize Reopens Old AIDS Woundsâ€. Newsweek went with â€œThe Shocking Nobel Prizeâ€.
Behind Montagnierâ€™s and Galloâ€™s title of â€œco-discovererâ€ lies a tangled, almost-bloody trail of scientific and perhaps criminal intrigue. The brief reads something like this: BarrÃ©-Sinoussi, in Montagnierâ€™s lab at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, first isolated a retrovirus she believed to be the cause of AIDS in a biopsy specimen of a lymph node in early 1983. She wrote up her discovery, dubbed LAV, in Science and sent samples of LAV-infected cells to Robert Gallo, at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, DC.
Gallo was Mr. Retrovirus himself. He had pioneered the field for a decade, discovering HTLV-I, the cause of T-cell leukemia and lymphoma, and HTLV-II. And since this new and terrifying disease was a ruthless targeter of T cells, Gallo was Americaâ€™s greatest hope to find the causeâ€”as he was the first to tell everyone. And sure enough, not many months after getting the LAV from Paris, Gallo announced that he had discovered the cause of HIV in his own lab.
Claiming it was a member of the family of blood-cancer viruses he had been tracking, he named it HTLV-III and rushed a flurry of papers into Science. The Reagan administrationâ€™s secretary of health, only too glad to distract attention from her bossâ€™s silence on AIDS, quickly called a now-infamous press conference at which she congratulated Gallo for this scientific triumph and announced that a vaccine would follow in less than six monthsâ€”a prediction that not a single scientist in the room believed remotely possible.
Back at the Pasteur Institute, the French understandably found this all beyond outrÃ©. And as more and more genetically different strains of the AIDS-causing virus were isolated, the fact that the French LAV and the American HTLV-III were exactly the same rallied supporters to their cause. Clearly, someone in Galloâ€™s lab had contaminated Galloâ€™s virus pool with the samples sent by BarrÃ©-Sinoussi. The only question was, was it accidental or intentional?
One thing was certain: What had begun as a scientific collaboration to fight the new plague was rapidly deteriorating into an uglyâ€”and very publicâ€”international incident. Accusations flew back and forth across the Atlantic. Prestige was at stake, and so were profits. A legal battle royale over royalties for the HIV antibody test erupted in 1986; the test was being used in massive numbers worldwide to diagnose patients and screen blood. It was left to President Reagan and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, in an absurdly pompous signing at the White House, to crown both Gallo and Montagnier as codiscoverersâ€”and split the treasure between the two nations.
In 1990, the Office of Scientific Integrity asked a group of Roche researchers to try to settle the matter from a scientific rather than a political perspective. After analyzing archival LAV/HTLV-III/HIV samples from the two labs, they found that contamination was responsible for the uncanny resemblance of the two discoveries. How that contamination occurred may never be known, though such incidents are hardly uncommon. And yet.
In 2002, Montagnier and Gallo penned a series of high-profile articles, separately and together, in which they agreed that the most accurate way of looking at the whole mess is in the true spirit of codiscovery: If the French lab was the first to isolate the retrovirus, Gallo was responsible for the science on which it was based as well as for its subsequent demonstration as the cause of AIDS and its crucial growth in cell lines.
What made the Nobel judges decide to put all that painful history through the shredder?
In their citation that accompanied the announcement of this morningâ€™s prize, no mention was made of Robert Gallo. Montagnier was quick to tell the AP, â€œIt is certain that [Gallo] deserved this as much as us two.” Gallo, for his part, said it was â€œa disappointment.â€ When Pharm Exec contacted the Institute of Human Virology to check his mood a few hours later, he offered only this official statement:
â€œI congratulate this yearâ€™s Nobel Prize winners. I am pleased my long-time friend and colleague Dr. Luc Montagnier, as well as his colleague Francoise BarrÃ©-Sinoussi, have received this honor. I would also like to congratulate my friend, Harold zur Hausen, in recognition of his discovery that human papilloma viruses cause cervical cancer. I was gratified to read Dr. Montagnierâ€™s kind statement this morning expressing that I was equally deserving.
â€œI am pleased that the Nobel Committee chose to recognize the importance of AIDS with these awards and I am proud that my colleagues and I continue to search for an AIDS vaccine at the University of Maryland School of Medicineâ€™s Institute of Human Virology.â€
At age 71, Robert Gallo remains a vital force in HIV research, as much for his leadership at the Institute of Human Virology and his outspoken advocacy for HIV funding as for his impressive string of discoveries after 1984. For a true scientist, the work itself may be prize enough.