Officials Cite Misconduct by U.S. AIDS Researcher : Medicine: Investigators say Robert Gallo obscured significance of virus discovered by French scientists.
Federal investigators have concluded that prominent AIDS researcher Robert C. Gallo committed scientific misconduct in connection with a paper he wrote on the discovery of the AIDS virus, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report released Wednesday.
But investigators found no evidence to support more serious charges that Gallo or his colleagues stole samples of the virus from a French laboratory.
The misconduct findings by the department’s Office of Research Integrity involve a single sentence that Gallo wrote in a paper published in the journal Science in May, 1984. In that article, investigators said, he “falsely reported” the viability of French samples of the virus, an act that constituted misconduct.
The report brought an angry reaction Wednesday from Gallo, who called it “utterly unwarranted” and a distortion in interpretation of the sentence in question.
He and his attorney, Joseph Onek, said that they would file an appeal and expect the finding to be overturned.
Under recently adopted rules, the appeal could lead to a hearing before a review judge in which Gallo would be permitted to offer a public defense. That option had not been available to him during the investigation by Health and Human Services.
Although he was cleared of the most serious of the charges first leveled almost a decade ago, the finding is considered a serious blow to Gallo’s career.
As head of the National Cancer Institute’s laboratory of tumor cell biology, he has been widely regarded in the scientific community as a brilliant researcher whose contributions laid the groundwork for the ultimate discovery of HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
The report recommended that Gallo’s research be monitored for accuracy for three years and ordered the National Institutes of Health--the Cancer Institute’s parent agency--to submit a plan to assure the accuracy of all research conducted by Gallo’s lab. It also proposed that a copy of the report be made a permanent part of Gallo’s personnel record.
Moreover, it recommended that the National Institutes of Health “consider whether any other actions are appropriate . . . given the conclusions of this report.”
The report also found evidence of misconduct on the part of Dr. Mikulas Popovic, a former colleague of Gallo’s. But it characterized his misconduct as “relatively minor.”
Aside from the damage to his career, Gallo said that the “endless and incompetent government investigation” had drained energy and resources from the overall AIDS research effort and “our collective creative thinking.”
“We cannot recapture that time,” Gallo said in a statement. “We cannot even begin to calculate the amount of potentially life-saving research that has been lost.”
The controversy erupted in 1983, at a time when researchers around the world were racing to isolate the AIDS virus.
In that year, researchers at the laboratory of Dr. Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris said they had isolated a virus taken from AIDS patients, although they were uncertain whether it actually was the cause of the disease. Calling it LAV, they sent two samples to Gallo’s lab.
A year later, Gallo and his colleagues published a series of papers identifying the AIDS virus as HTLV-III and reporting they had developed a test for AIDS.
Later analysis determined that Gallo’s and Montagnier’s viruses were virtually identical.
In 1985, the French filed suit, claiming Gallo was trying to take credit for their discovery. The suit was settled in 1987 when the two parties agreed to share credit for the discovery.
But in 1989, after Congress and published reports raised questions about the episode, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services began investigations.
A report by NIH groups last summer concluded that Gallo was not guilty of misconduct and that Popovic was. The new report reverses those findings.
In the research paper that led to the Health and Human Services finding, Gallo wrote that the French LAV virus had “not been transmitted to a permanent cell line.” The new report called the statement a misrepresentation because Gallo’s lab had, in fact, been able to grow the French sample in large quantities.
“This misrepresentation did not invalidate the basic findings of the research but it obscured the role of LAV in this important research,” the report said.
But Onek and Gallo argued that the sentence was “clearly” referring to “insufficient characterization of LAV by the French,” not by Gallo or his colleagues.
“The paragraph is making no statement about whether Dr. Gallo’s laboratory had grown LAV because such a statement would have been irrelevant in this context,” he said.
The report also is expected to raise some uncertainty over the fate of Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health--who approved the conclusions of her agency’s earlier internal investigation that essentially cleared Gallo.