Beardsley, Tim. "Second Opinion: The Heat Is on Gallo - Again," Scientific American, May

 

Beardsley, Tim. "Second Opinion: The Heat Is on Gallo - Again," Scientific American, May
1990, pp. 19-20.

Here is the article in its entirety.

Like Lady Macbeth's damned spot, the controversy surrounding the discovery of the AIDS virus
refuses to fade. Three years ago the principals in the dispute, Robert C. Gallo of the National
Cancer Institute and Luc Montagneir of the Pasteur Institute, seems to have settled their
differences. Now the National Institutes of Health - barely a step ahead of Congressman John D.
Dingell - has decided to investigate the role of Gallo's laboratory in the identification of the
AIDS virus and the development of a blood test based on it. The clamor has strained the
reconciliation between Gallo and Montagnier.

The NIH describes the inquiry as a fact-finding exercise to determine whether there is evidence
of misconduct in Gallo's laboratory sufficient to justify a full investigation. The inquiry will be
overseen by an independent panel, chosen from a list of names suggested by the National
Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.

What made the wheels of a government investigation creak into action now, when the affair
appeared to have been consigned to the history books? It is almost five years since the French
government sued the U.S. for breach of contract, accusing it of having used a sample of the AIDS
virus supplied by Montagnier to make the U.S. blood test. And it is more than three years since
President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques-Rene Chirac announced that the
U.S. and France were dropping their legal disputes, agreeing that both sides had played an equal
role in the discovery of the AIDS virus. Gallo and Montagnier then published a joint chronology
of their AIDS work, as well as an article in the pages of this magazine [see "AIDS in 1988," by
Robert C. Gallo and Luc Montagneir; Scientific American, October, 1988]. Their public
reconciliation was seen by many as guaranteeing for both an invitation to some future Nobel
ceremony in Stockholm.

The proximate cause of the NIH's decision to probe the affair is a 50,000-word story in the
Chicago Tribune by John Crewdson, a national correspondent for the paper. Since the piece
appeared last November, Crewdson has followed up with two more stories. He bases his
reportage on interviews with sources closed to the controversy as well as on 5,000 pages of
government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Crewdson between with the established facts. In May, 1983, Montagnier and his colleagues
published the first paper describing the AIDS virus, which they named LAV. In April, 1984,
Gallo announced that he had both identified a virus that causes AIDS and developed a blood test
to detect it. Gallo, who called his virus HTLV-IIIb, the virus Gallo used in the U.S. blood test,
are surprisingly alike for such a variable virus. Crewdson's article suggests Gallo did not
characterize the AIDS virus until after he received Montagneir's LAV sample. Crewdson
concludes there is "compelling" evidence that what happened in Gallo's laboratory "was either
an accident or theft." Montagnier has publicly urged Gallo to acknowledge that contamination by
LAV was the source of HTLV- IIIb. Crewdson's account quickly came to the attention of
Dingell, chairman of a House oversight and investigations subcommittee. In December he wrote
to William J. Raub, acting director of the NIH, asking what he knew of Crewdson's charges.
Raub replied that an inquiry was under way and that inaccuracies or misleading statements had
been found in Crewdson's article. Dingell demanded a more specific reply, so Raub outlined 14
areas into which the NIH will inquire.

The NIH inquiry may also reflect a desire to keep its affairs out of Dingell's hands. Dingell
wields powerful influence over the NIH budget, and his subcommittee is looking into alleged
purchasing irregularities by a member of Gallo's staff. Scientists and NIH officials regard with
alarm the prospect that Dingell may breach their walls as he did last year, when he investigated
charges that the NIH whitewashed allegations of misconduct by Nobel laureate David Baltimore.
The prospect of Gallo on the witness stand may have spurred a preemptive strike. The expert
panel seems intended to avoid any future allegations of a whitewash.

Among the matters the NIH inquiry will address are:

The number of AIDS-virus isolates that were made in Gallo's laboratory, and when. Gallo has
detailed four isolates o.f the AIDS virus that predate his receipt of the LAV sample in September,
1983. But Crewdson's November article alleges inconsistencies between Gallo's laboratory
notebooks and his published identification of patients used as sources of the virus.

The cell line that Gallo used to produce HTLV-IIIb. Crewdson's account suggests one precursor
cell line had been used earlier to grow LAV.

The origin of the pool of virus sources that led to HTLV-IIIb. Crewdson says it originated in a
pool created in November, 1983, a month after Gallo was growing the LAV sample from
Montagnier.

Comparison of talks given by Gallo and the published papers derived from them. According to
Crewdson, in September, 1983, and February, 1984, Gallo attended meetings at which
Montagneir and his colleagues reported dramatic progress in their work with LAV. Gallo spoke
but did not mention HTLV-III. Yet in the proceedings of each meeting, Gallo described his
isolation of HTLV-IIIb.

Work in Gallo's laboratory with LAV. Crewdson describes laboratory records that suggest a
colleague of Gallo's did various experiments with cultures derived from the French virus. In an
article published two months ago, Crewdson writes that in September, 1985, Peter J. Fischinger,
then associate director of the cancer institute, questioned Gallo and his associates about their
work with LAV. But according to Crewdson, Fischinger's report failed to disclose that LAV and
HTLV-IIIb were known to share simpler variant forms - strong evidence of shared origin.

The deletion from a letter (released by the U.S. to lawyers representing the Pasteur Institute) of
references to electron micrographs of LAV taken by Gallo's associates.

Electron micrographs. Crewdson thinks that he has case new light on Gallo's admission that
micrographs of the AIDS virus he published in his 1984 paper in Science were actually
photographs of Montagneir's LAV. Gallo ascribes the slip to a technician's error, but Crewdson
charges that Gallo had no other picture he could use.

Gallo stoutly defends his honesty. He says he himself asked for an independent panel to oversee
that NIH inquiry. Moreover, he maintains that Crewdson distorts the facts. Gallo insists that he
had 20 identifications of the AIDS virus by September, 1983. By the following April, he says, he
had more than 10 isolates in continuous cell culture.

Gallo dismisses the discrepancies between talks he gave and the published papers, saying he
always extemporizes and that updating reports is normal. He says he used HTLV-IIIb for his
AIDS test because it produced more virus than did other strains he had isolated. And he explains
that many of his laboratory records that refer to LAV were made by a scientist who used the
designation to include viruses that had similarities to LAV.

Could Gallo's HTLV-IIIb possibly represent some contamination of an experiment by
Montagnier's LAV? Gallo acknowledges that as "a significant possibility." Montagneir offers a
wry rejoinder: "Well, in that case we almost agree." Such convergence may foreshadow the
NIH's findings, but it is not likely to shorten the road to Stockholm.