Co-discoverer of HIV to bring his research to USF. He’s looking for a cure. (2024)

Robert Gallo, 87, is still hunting for a cure to HIV. And he’s bringing his research to Tampa this summer.

Gallo, an influential scientist who’s credited as the co-discoverer of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is joining the University of South Florida faculty in July. He plans to dive into a range of subjects as director of a new virology center.

In 2011, he co-founded the Global Virus Network, an international coalition of virologists, which is moving its headquarters to the university under a five-year agreement in which USF will pay the network $2 million per year for support. He previously led the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland.

Gallo is best known for his early work on HIV, which sparked what “PBS News Hour” once called a “transatlantic research war” — a bitter feud between scientists that eventually led to intervention from President Ronald Reagan and his French counterpart.

Co-discoverer of HIV to bring his research to USF. He’s looking for a cure. (1)

In 1983, Luc Montagnier, a researcher in Paris, published his lab’s findings on a virus he called LAV, but noted that its role in AIDS was still undetermined, according to an obituary from 2022 in The Washington Post. A year later, the U.S. secretary of health and human services announced that Gallo and his lab had found the probable cause of AIDS. The culprit was a virus they called HTLV-3. At that time, AIDS had already killed more than 1,700 people in the U.S. and would ultimately lead to millions of fatalities worldwide in the late 20th century.

Montagnier sent samples of his virus to Gallo, who eventually acknowledged that the American lab’s virus was probably contaminated by the French samples, The Post reported.

Gallo’s team secured a U.S. patent for a blood test in 1985, spurring a lawsuit from the French against the federal government, according to The Post’s obituary. The two nations later agreed to split royalties from the test — worth millions of dollars each year — and Gallo and Montagnier were credited as co-discoverers of the virus, which was renamed HIV in 1986. But only Montagnier won a Nobel Prize for his work.

The Tampa Bay Times recently spoke to Gallo, who was the most referenced scientist in the world in the 1980s and ‘90s, about his plans for the USF virology center, what could spark the next pandemic and his thoughts on Florida’s COVID-19 response.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Will the center conduct research, and if yes, what will it focus on?

The first thing is to make it as good as possible and to think about what are the future problems, but also I’m entangled with research on things of the past … viruses involved in human cancer and, of course, in HIV and AIDS.

I just published two papers with French colleagues. … I believe we have shed new light on the mechanisms of how HIV causes AIDS. That gives ideas for new forms of therapy that I believe have the potential of leading to a “functional cure.” … I’m working on that with collaborators.

Co-discoverer of HIV to bring his research to USF. He’s looking for a cure. (2)

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I have an interest in what’s called HTLV-1 (human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1). It was the first retrovirus to be discovered, before HIV, which is also a retrovirus. … It’s the cause of leukemia of T cells in young adults.

It doesn’t transmit easily but it’s highly cancer causing.

Can you expand on HIV, what work your team is going to be doing?

With my French collaborators … we found something very strange. In an infection, rather early, if not (immediately), there are abnormalities not just in the HIV-infected cells but throughout the body in all immune cells. How the hell does that happen? I was shocked when we had that data. So we decided to find out why, and I think we did.

It’s an overproduction of interferon-alpha, which is part of our innate immunity. … If it’s too high, and lasts too long, it becomes a real problem.

We’re going to try to target that interferon-alpha with antibodies. … I want to bring it into clinical trials fast. If we can get a functional cure, you don’t need therapy anymore.

What are the most pressing scientific questions you think virologists need to answer in the next decade?

There are some that are obvious. A universal flu vaccine. And then, could that be the same with COVID?

What pathogen do you think will spark the next pandemic?

I don’t know. … Look, who would suspect HIV? In the mid-, late ‘60s, when I was a young, beginning guy, everybody respected viruses and the possibility of epidemics. Ten years later, nobody did. I found that human retroviruses existed. I was laughed at. The first paper on HTLV-1 was rejected by the Journal of Virology.

It may be a total surprise. If I had to bet, I’d say a variant of influenza. And because of our recent experience with MERS, then SARS and then COVID, you’d probably say another coronavirus, or one of the same emerging back again. … In the meantime, greater problems with dengue in the southern parts of the United States and all over the world, moving northward.

Public health has been so politicized in the wake of COVID-19, including in Florida. Is that a concern to you?

Of course it’s a concern. What can we do? Should scientists speak out all the time, but then cause trouble for a university or themselves? … I don’t know what to say. I really don’t.

The state of Florida’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been criticized by many public health experts. Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance, in 2022 petitioned the state Supreme Court to impanel a grand jury to investigate “crimes and wrongs” in Florida related to COVID-19 vaccines. Given these issues, as a virologist are you uncomfortable at all moving to Florida and joining the faculty of a state-funded university?

People there have told me that he’s very smart, very rational, not good in crowds, so that hurts him.

I have no fears about Florida. And when talking to the dean (College of Medicine Dean Charles Lockwood), he thought it would be very useful to try to meet with the governor to do what I did in Maryland. We had a lot of state support.

I heard great things about his wife and her care about cancer. I have not heard bad things, including by Democrats. … Did I agree with everything he said? … I can’t think of anybody I agree with all they said.

It’s been decades since this very public feud between you and the French scientist Luc Montagnier over the HIV discovery. As time has passed, looking back on that, do you have any reflections?

Who showed the cause? Unequivocally we did, they never did. Who grew the virus? Unequivocally we did, they never did. Who provided the technology? We did, they never did. … But their paper is the first paper.

We shouldn’t have called a press conference because I told the French group that we would do things together in a press conference. That was the beginning of a problem.

Now, the controversy was not a controversy until blood test patent money came to be.

Co-discoverer of HIV to bring his research to USF. He’s looking for a cure. (2024)

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