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Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer, and the Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery.

Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer, and the Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery

Robert Gallo. Basic Books, $22.95. To the naive reader--if such a person exists--who has never heard of Dr. Gallo's troubles, the title of his book might indicate that it is going to be a swashbuckling story of discovery on the front lines of science. But to those who have followed Gallo's blighted career, it is clear what Virus Hunting is going to be. It is going to be an apologia.

AIDS research is a subject exploding with politics and passion. Nearly everyone who researches or even writes about AIDS has been attacked by one interest group or another. Dr. Jerome Groopman of New England Deaconess Hospital still cringes when he recalls AIDS activists who passed out Kool-Aid at one of his lectures several years ago, comparing his recommendation that people with AIDS take the drug AZT to Jim Jones's cyanide solution. I once got several hundred nasty Christmas cards from members of the activist group ACT-UP, with messages like "the blood of people with AIDS is on your hands." A well-regarded scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Ellen Cooper, asked to be reassigned this year so that she would no longer have to deal with AIDS drugs--she felt beaten down by the unrelenting pressure from activists, drug companies, and the government. But even in this company, Gallo has suffered more than his share. Perhaps that's why, reading Gallo's book, I kept thinking of Coleridge's lengthy "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which an old sailor collars a young man and forces him to sit still for his bitter, cautionary tale.

Gallo was attracted to medicine when he was a child, after his sister died of leukemia. But as an adult, he found himself uninterested in, and actually put off by, seeing and treating patients. Instead, he became enmeshed in molecular biology, a science that comes close in its standards and dispassion to physics or chemistry. He began to look for viruses that can cause cancer in humans, focusing on a particular class of viruses that insert copies of themselves among a cell's genes--just like the AIDS virus does.

Gallo's problems began in 1972, when he thought he had made a momentous discovery. He got up at a scientific conference to present his discovery of a virus that can cause human cancer. To his dismay, other scientists at the meeting gleefully informed him that rather than discovering a new human virus, Gallo had isolated animal viruses that had contaminated his cells as they grew in the laboratory. Gallo was so viciously ridiculed, he writes, that the hurt still festers. "Even now, I have difficulty thinking back to that day," he writes, when the joke was "human tumor virus or human rumor virus?"

A decade later, just as Gallo regained his standing in the scientific community by finding incontrovertible evidence of that human tumor virus, he became ensnarled in the politics of AIDS.

In the early eighties, Gallo was one of the few scientists who turned their labs over to a search for the new, destructive virus. Having worked on cancer viruses that bear some similarities to HIV, he was ideally situated for the task. And, eventually, he discovered the virus. But so did Dr. Luc Montagnier of Paris's Pasteur Institute. And because one of Gallo's viruses is almost identical to a virus isolated by Montagnier, Gallo has been accused of stealing or misappropriating the virus from the French. He also has been accused of seeking a patent on the antibody test for HIV for his personal gain. And for more than a year, he was pursued by a Chicago Tribune reporter, John Crewdson, who deluged Gallo with reams of requests for data, letters, expense accounts, and lab notes and who called almost every scientist in Gallo's field asking for information that would make Gallo look nefarious. Crewdson eventually published a 50,000-word article that accused Gallo of stealing the AIDS virus. Although it never revealed a smoking gun, the article prompted an as-yet-unfinished investigation of Gallo by the National Institutes of Health. While Gallo does not bare his soul in this book, he has said privately to me and many others that he was devastated by Crewdson's zealous investigation.

Many AIDS researchers have similar stories to tell. But Gallo is the field's true Job. That's one reason I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend his book.

I wish I could say that Gallo has finally put all the controversy to rest, closing a particularly unpleasant chapter in his life. I wanted to like his book and to see in it an end, at last, to the ceaseless arguments over who did what and when in the discovery of the AIDS virus. But I found his book slow going, full of details that will not change the minds of those who want to believe he is guilty of stealing the AIDS virus or who dislike his fast-talking, aggressive ways. At the same time, I think the book will baffle and bore those who are not members of the AIDS cognoscenti.

One problem is that Gallo has no gift for writing. His prose is sprinkled with scientific jargon that is certain to confuse the general reader. Who except the most diligent will struggle through sentences like, "As noted, to make viral proteins requires a viral RNA in the form (messenger RNA) and location (cytoplasm) where it can be 'read' or 'translated.' "Even when Gallo writes about incidents that have deeply hurt or enraged him, his prose is almost devoid of passion. He also has larded his book with irrelevancies, like a brief history of the National Institutes of Health and a section on the 13 questions he is most often asked about AIDS.

Those who want to read a juicy tale, full of righteous anger, by a scientist who feels himself persecuted will surely be disappointed. Those who want a primer on viruses will find Gallo's book rough going. But those who are curious about the controversy that envelopes Gallo may want to read his book to learn his side of the story. I wish Gallo success and I fervently hope, for his sake and for the sake of AIDS research, that he will finally be left alone to do his work.
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Author:Kolata, Gina
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1991
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