Was Robert Gallo robbed of the Nobel prize?
By Andy Coghlan (Image: National Institutes of Health) See Robert Gallo’s reply One of the tackiest sagas in the history of medicine unfolded in the decade after HIV was discovered in 1983. On the face of it, celebrations were in order because it had taken scientists just two years to discover what was causing AIDS after the first cases emerged in 1981. Instead, the world’s public were treated to an interminable squabble between two teams – one in France and one in the US – over who actually discovered the virus, whose test for the virus was patented first, and whether one team had “appropriated” viral samples from the other. Now, the whole saga has been raked up again because the leaders of one team, but not the other, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. One team, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, was led by Robert Gallo. The other, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, was led by Luc Montagnier. On Monday, Montagnier and his colleague Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, shared half the prize. The other half of the prize went to Harald zur Hausen of the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg for a completely unrelated achievement – the discovery that human papilloma viruses (HPV) cause cervical cancer. So one has to ask: why did the Nobel committee decide against including Gallo? In the information sent to journalists, the Nobel Foundation says that Montagnier’s team isolated the virus we now call HIV-1 in 1983. They found it in samples of white blood cells extracted from the lymph nodes of Frederic Brugiere, a French fashion designer with AIDS, and called it lymphadenopathy associated virus (LAV). On 20 May 1983, Montagnier’s team had its discovery published in Science (vol 220, p 868). Not until a year later, on 4 May 1984, did Gallo’s team report that they too, had discovered the virus that causes AIDS, again in Science (vol 224, p 500) . His team called its virus HTLV-IIIB, standing for human T-cell leukaemia/lymphoma virus type IIIB. New Scientist‘s reporter Steve Connor was the first to look in depth at the growing rift between the groups, and to raise questions about Gallo’s claim to have discovered the virus (New Scientist, 12 February 1987, p49). Read Connor’s article (PDFs, ten parts): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Many years, and many rumours later, in June 1991, Gallo finally admitted that the AIDS virus he had “discovered” in 1984 really came from the Pasteur Institute – in fact, from the lymph nodes of Frederic Brugiere himself (see this wonderful account of the saga by our medical reporter of the time, Phyllida Brown, which details the National Institutes of Health investigation that cleared Gallo of stealing the French strain. So HTLV-IIIB and LAV were one and the same, and both came from the same sample. Between 1983 and 1984, the two teams did regularly swap samples, but quite how the crucial sample ended with a “discovery” in Gallo’s lab has never been fully explained. In a letter to the journal Nature in 1991 admitting that the crucial sample had come from France, Gallo said that it appeared to have come from contamination of his cultures by a French virus. There were also issues of money coming from a test for HIV developed and patented by Gallo’s team on the back of the HTLV-IIIB discovery. Although this was settled out of court in March 1987, the question arises whether in the light of the viruses having originated from France, the Pasteur deserved to have profited exclusively from the test (not least since the French team had applied for a patent on the test in the US four months before Gallo). The out-of-court agreement, announced jointly by French prime minister Jacques Chirac and US president Ronald Reagan, stipulated that each of the two parties had equal rights to claim priority concerning detection and isolation of the virus, and Gallo and Montagnier would henceforth be recognised as the “co-discoverers” of HIV – a stipulation also included in a Chronology of AIDS research co-authored by the two in Nature on 2 April 1987. So in the wake of the revelations that emerged in 1991 about the “contamination” of the Gallo sample, does Gallo’s title of “co-discoverer” still stand up? An analysis of scientific citations of the two landmark papers throws some interesting light on this. It shows that at first, hardly anyone cited Montagnier’s 1983 paper, while Gallo’s attracted massive interest from other scientists in the six months after publication. But the situation was reversed following the peak of the dispute in 1985, with Montagnier’s paper gradually climbing the citation charts until it overtook Gallo’s. By 1990, scientists had moved to citing Montagnier’s paper only, as reported in New Scientist. Other scientists have weighed into the debate too. Stanley Prusiner of the University of California at San Francisco, and himself a Nobel prize winner for the discovery of prion diseases, wrote in Science that “in retrospect, there is no doubt that Montagnier and his colleagues were the first to report the discovery of the virus that we now call human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV”. Likewise, the two parties tried to bring the matter to a close with a joint announcement in 1994. But the key question remains. Did Gallo do enough to have deserved a share of the Nobel glory? Or was it right that the final credit went to Montagnier? Some researchers we spoke to certainly thought that including Gallo would have brought the whole dispute to rest once and for all. I tried to get in touch with the man himself, but so far I’ve had no response. More on these topics: