Dispute Over AIDS Discovery Persists : Medicine: At issue is credit for identifying the virus. Scientists present new evidence in a letter to show that a key researcher did not steal the material.
Prominent AIDS researcher Dr. Robert C. Gallo has produced further evidence that he did not steal the first identified AIDS virus from Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Paris-based Pasteur Institute.
Gallo and Montagnier are generally considered to be the co-discoverers of the AIDS virus. But there have been repeated disputes over the last seven years about how the credit should be shared.
The new evidence, a genetic analysis of laboratory samples of the first identified AIDS virus, is contained in a letter written by Gallo and nine other scientists and published today in Nature, a British scientific journal.
But the information is likely to have little effect on an ongoing National Institutes of Health investigation of other aspects of Gallo’s AIDS research in the early 1980s. Nor does it answer the question of where the AIDS virus used by Gallo’s laboratory to develop the AIDS blood test came from.
“These data do not have a direct bearing on the issues which we are investigating,” said Suzanne Hadley, the deputy director of the NIH’s Office of Scientific Integrity.
Joseph Onek, Gallo’s attorney, agreed, but said the findings were important “to put to rest all those rumors with respect to Dr. Gallo and his laboratory, which was certainly the backdrop for the investigation.”
In October, the NIH announced that Gallo, of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., apparently did not misappropriate--either deliberately or accidentally--AIDS virus samples that he obtained from Montagnier.
But it began a “formal investigation” of several issues, including possible scientific misconduct related to a report published by Gallo and his colleagues in the journal Science in May, 1984. Apparently there are discrepancies between the report, one of four published in the journal pinpointing the virus as the cause of AIDS, and records kept in Gallo’s laboratory.
By examining frozen samples of patients’ blood, the NIH is also trying to ascertain the precise source of the virus that Gallo used in his experiments and in developing the AIDS blood test.
The NIH probe is expected to be completed and the results made public before the end of the year.
In 1983, at a time when Gallo’s and Montagnier’s laboratories were collaborating, Gallo first obtained AIDS virus specimens from Montagnier. At the time, Gallo also had a substantial number of his own AIDS virus specimens.
Several years later, Montagnier and Gallo both published genetic sequences for their AIDS virus isolates in scientific journals.
The sequences had strong similarities. This raised questions within the scientific community about whether Gallo’s sequence was based on his own viral samples or on Montagnier’s.
But according to the letter in Nature, the genetic sequence of the original AIDS virus samples from Montagnier is different from the sequence of the AIDS virus published by Gallo’s laboratory. In fact, it is also different from the genetic sequence of the AIDS virus that was later published by Montagnier’s laboratory.
Therefore, it now appears that neither the French nor the American sequences of the AIDS virus originated with the virus samples that the French sent to Gallo in 1983. “The source of the (French and American virus sequences) may be difficult to determine and thus remain unknown,” the letter said.
Reactions to the letter were varied.
“I don’t think this solves the case,” Montagnier told the Washington Post. “It adds more confusion.”
Howard Temin, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin, told Nature: “We can’t accuse anyone of anything. Do we care further? No. This is a non-issue as far as the AIDS epidemic is concerned. Now it is a non-issue as to the character of Dr. Gallo. Let’s get off with it.”