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HIV co-discoverer speaks to UM

Two decades ago, thousands in the world were dying of a new, unknown illness with no option other than hoping for a cure. The discovery of what was causing their affliction marked an important time in recent scientific history. Robert C. Gallo, an American scientist, with his partner Luc Montagnier, co-discovered HIV, concluding that the retrovirus was the cause of AIDS.

Dr. Gallo, currently the director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, delivered the keynote address during the 31st Annual Eastern-Atlantic Student Research Forum [ESRF], a four day international symposium at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, held to present original basic science and clinical research. He discussed the challenges and prospects for meeting the complexities of HIV and AIDS research today.

“He is the smartest, wittiest and most inspiring person,” said Dr. Savita Pahwa of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “His perseverance and tenacity has brought him where he is today.”

In 1980, Dr. Gallo and his colleagues were pioneers in the field of retrovirology. They discovered HTLV-1, the first human retrovirus, and linked it to being the cause of a form of leukemia. In 1981, the group discovered HTLV-2, and finally in 1982 discovered the third known human retrovirus, HIV, and linked it to causing AIDS.

At first, there was controversy concerning the discoveries.

“You get much more credit if no one believes you at first,” Dr. Gallo said. “You move a field when you have verification.”

During the period of Dr. Gallo’s research, HIV was prominent mainly in Africa. Today, however, the disease and variants of it has spread to countries all over the world.

“Though African Americans are known to be the most at risk for HIV, no race is immune,” Dr. Gallo said.

Dr. Gallo named a few of his successes, namely antiviral therapy using drugs and understanding how HIV enters the cell. He has written a book, Virus Hunting, which outlines his discovery process and how it fits into the story of his life. He also helped promote the HIV blood test.

– Awarded 19 honorary
doctorates from universities

– Member of the National
Academy of Sciences and the
Royal Society of Medicine (in
Scotland and Belgium)

– Received major scientific honors and awards including
the U.S. Albert Lasker Prize
twice and the 2001 World
Health Award from President
Gorbachev in Vienna

Source: www.esrfonline.com,
photo courtesy of IVH.org

“Blood tests are simple, safe, inexpensive, and accurate,” Dr. Gallo said. “They offer instantaneous and global verification.”

Hari Nadiminti, a UM medical student who served as co-director of the event, was pleased with the results of the lecture.

“ESRF was very honored and fortunate to have this world-renowned scientist speak at our forum,” Nadiminti said.

“Dr. Gallo gave a very informative talk-it was enlightening in terms of HIV therapy in the future,” said Alexis Furze, a fourth-year UM medical student who attended the lecture.

The key problem of HIV today, according to Dr. Gallo, is retrovirus integration.

“There are three things that are needed most now,” Dr. Gallo said. “First, we need a continued development of new approaches to therapy. Second, we need the delivery of drugs to underdeveloped countries. Finally, obviously, we need the development of an effective HIV preventative vaccine.”

Today, the best vaccine lasts about three to four months, thus voiding the practicality of using it. Dr. Gallo further acknowledged that there is no real vaccine yet, and that some solutions to the disease are not based on rational science.

“This is a solvable problem,” Dr. Gallo said. “I feel better about our prospects.”

Shalu Patel can be contacted at s.patel16@umiami.edu.

March 1, 2005

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