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HIV codiscoverer talks about surprises in AIDS research

HIV codiscoverer talks about surprises in AIDS research

Robert Gallo, who 20 years ago codiscovered HIV and now heads the University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology, gave a lengthy interview to The Baltimore Sun last week in which he talked about the many surprises he's seen in AIDS research, including that he had no idea at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in 1981 that he'd still be pursuing a cure 23 years later. "I thought I'd be back full-time with cancer research," he told the Sun. "But also I certainly thought that this was a virus that wouldn't go away. To make an analogy, what's worse--the plague or this? It depends on how you look at the world. The plague really rushes through like a tornado, killing things in its path, but then rather quickly disappears. But we knew the nature of retroviruses [a class of viruses that includes HIV and hepatitis B and C]--they don't go away." Gallo also said he's been surprised that scientists have had much more success in discovering antiretroviral treatments to shut down HIV replication in people infected with the virus than in crafting vaccines or drugs to prevent infection in the first place. "We thought there would be little therapy but success with a protective vaccine, and it turned out to be quite the opposite," he told the Sun. "On that, our instincts were completely wrong, and the vast majority of people thought exactly the same thing." On a disappointing note, Gallo told the newspaper that he doesn't see any treatments on the horizon that could completely wipe out the virus inside HIV-positive people because of HIV's ability to hide inside dormant immune system cells and come to life years--even decades--later. "You've got to sense out every cell that harbors silent genes of the virus," he told the Sun. "There are many cells, though their percentages are small, that harbor these genes in a silent form. Having drugs that can find the genes and kill these cells is out of our reach in the foreseeable future."

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