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Commentary by Vera Hassner Sharav

March 5a, 2002 

American Scientific Misconduct AmericaUndercuts Meaningful AIDS Research by the French

FYI

Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a MassiveCoverup, and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo is a new book by Pulitzer Prizewinner, John Crewdson, who first exposed the story of scientific misconduct in TheChicago Tribune, in 1989. Below is a review by John Horgan that appeared inSunday’s The New York Times.

The story began in 1983. It describes collusion byAmerican scientists and public officials at the highest national level defraudedthe Pasteur Institute of the fruits of their discoveries: namely, the discoveryof the AIDS virus, a screening test to detect the virus, and U.S. patent rights.

"the Office of Research Integrity asserted in 1993that Gallo ”seriously hindered progress in AIDS research” by slighting theFrench discoveries for so long. His steps to deny the French the United Statespatent for the blood test, Crewdson suggests, also had dire consequences.Various studies showed that, at least through 1986, Gallo’s test was inferior tothe Pasteur version; some Americans were infected with AIDS after receivingblood certified as safe by Gallo’s test." The book reveals that HHS had afinancial interest in protecting Gallo–HHS was making $4 million a year inroyalties.

John Horgan’s review poses the question: "was Gallo’sbehavior so extreme as to be anomalous, or was it to some extent encouraged bywhat Crewdson calls a ”hypercompetitive” scientific culture?"

As the steady stream of research related misconductreports in the press have revealed, conflicts of interest, a culture ofarrogance, and a white wall of silence, encourage ethical and scientificmisconduct and undermine the integrity of the products of research.

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http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/03/books/review/03HORGANT.html?pagewanted=print&position=topMarch 3, 2002

‘Science Fictions’: Autopsy of a Medical Breakthrough

By JOHN HORGAN

Twelve years ago, Robert Gallo was chief of the laboratoryfor tumor-cell biology at the National Cancer Institute and one of the world’smost celebrated scientists. In 1984 Margaret Heckler, secretary of health andhuman services, had hailed Gallo as the discoverer of the virus that causes AIDSand the inventor of the first test for the virus. Gallo had received virtuallyevery major prize for medical research except the Nobel. Samuel Broder, directorof the National Cancer Institute, once put Gallo on a par with such scientificgiants as Freud and Einstein.

Then on Nov. 19, 1989, The Chicago Tribune published a50,000-word article that accused Gallo of taking credit for AIDS-relateddiscoveries achieved at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Fleshing out rumors thathad circulated for years, the newspaper’s expose provoked several federalinvestigations of Gallo. The article’s author, John Crewdson, must have beengalled that all of the inquiries ended inconclusively; although Gallo’sreputation was tarnished, none of the misconduct charges leveled against himstuck. In ”Science Fictions,” Crewdson returns with a vengeance to the Galloaffair in more than 600 excruciatingly detailed pages. Well before AIDS madeGallo famous, Crewdson shows, he had attracted attention not only for his workon cancer-related viruses but also for his ambition and arrogance. When anepidemic of a mysterious wasting disease broke out among gay men in the early1980’s, Gallo quickly guessed that a virus was the cause and dedicated hislaboratory’s resources to finding it.

In 1983, Gallo nominated a cancer-related virus calledHTLV, discovered in his laboratory in 1980, as the most probable cause of AIDS.At the same time, a group led by Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institutereported finding a different virus, named LAV, in AIDS victims. Gallo askedMontagnier for samples of LAV, which Montagnier supplied. Crewdson producedevidence that within months, one of Gallo’s associates, Mikulas Popovic,cultured LAV in blood cells and found that it was much more common in AIDSvictims than HTLV. Gallo nonetheless publicly disparaged the French team’sresearch, insisting that Montagnier’s viral samples could not be grown inculture and hence were virtually useless for research. As late as February 1984,Gallo was still asserting that HTLV or a variant was the ”only candidate” forthe virus that causes AIDS. A few months later, he announced that he haddiscovered a variant of HTLV, called HTLV-3B, in patients with AIDS. Otherresearchers pointed out that HTLV-3B had little in common with HTLV; in fact,HTLV-3B turned out to be strikingly similar to LAV, the French virus Galloslighted.

There were several possible interpretations of thissituation. The simplest was that Gallo independently discovered the same virusthe French had. By the mid-1980’s, however, researchers established that theAIDS virus mutates so rapidly that specimens extracted from different patientswill always have diverged genetically. Some researchers said the virusesdescribed by Gallo and Montagnier were so similar they must have come from thesame patient or the same laboratory flask. Gallo initially denied that his virusand the French virus were the same. When that position became untenable, hesuggested that the French laboratory had misappropriated his virus, not viceversa; after all, he had supplied the French with samples of his virus in thesummer of 1984. But Montagnier’s group had described LAV in print a year beforethey received samples of HTLV-3B from Gallo. Also, Popovic, who had supposedlyisolated HTLV-3B, was vague about its origins. Popovic eventually said he hadextracted the virus from a ”pool” of blood from many patients, a procedurefrowned upon by other virologists.

Meanwhile, both the Pasteur Institute and Gallo’s teamapplied for patents for a test that could detect the virus. After the Patent andTrademark Office awarded the patent to Gallo’s group in May 1985, the PasteurInstitute sued, contending it had discovered the virus used in the Gallo test.When the French produced supporting records, Gallo retorted that their”meticulous and apparently premeditated documentation” showed they cared moreabout ”patents and notoriety” than about good science. He also kept churningout revised versions of his own discovery of the AIDS virus, contending in onepaper that he had isolated it as early as 1982. The dispute eventually reachedPresident Ronald Reagan and the French prime minister, Jacques Chirac, who inMarch 1987 declared a truce by agreeing that the Americans and the French wouldshare the patent for the AIDS blood test. Somehow, Gallo’s bluster had convincedsome American officials and prominent journalists that, at the least, hedeserved credit for independently discovering the cause of AIDS and developing atest for the virus.

In 1989, however, the National Institutes of Healthstarted looking into Crewdson’s assertion in his newspaper that Gallo’s”discovery” was ”either an accident or a theft.” Over the next three years,different committees of the institute accused both Gallo and Popovic ofscientific misconduct. The charges were dropped in November 1993 because ofpressure from high-ranking government officials, according to Crewdson. He saysAmerican officials had a financial motive for backing Gallo: by the end of 1986,his blood test was making $4 million a year in royalties for the Department ofHealth and Human Services. On July 11, 1994, that department finallyacknowledged that ”a virus provided by the Institut Pasteur was used byNational Institutes of Health scientists who invented the American H.I.V. testkit in 1984.”

It promised the French $6 million in restitution. That isas close as the United States has come to an apology for its decade-long defenseof Gallo. That year Gallo left the National Institutes of Health for a positionat the University of Maryland, but he continued to receive $100,000 annually inroyalties for his patented blood test. Gallo and his advocates have portrayedhim as a flawed, but great, scientist trying to seek truth and save lives whileothers tormented him with legalistic quibbles.

But the Office of Research Integrity asserted in 1993 thatGallo ”seriously hindered progress in AIDS research” by slighting the Frenchdiscoveries for so long. His steps to deny the French the United States patentfor the blood test, Crewdson suggests, also had dire consequences. Variousstudies showed that, at least through 1986, Gallo’s test was inferior to thePasteur version; some Americans were infected with AIDS after receiving bloodcertified as safe by Gallo’s test. These infections might have been prevented ifthe French had been granted the United States patent — and the share of theblood-testing market — they deserved. ”Science Fictions” has one significantflaw. Crewdson was apparently determined to let the facts speak for themselves– and they do, particularly as summarized in a timeline at the beginning of thebook. But Crewdson’s narrative would have benefited if he had stepped back moreoften from the minutiae of his case to provide perspective and analysis. Hefaults American officials, scientists and journalists for helping Gallo toperpetuate his ”fictions.” But Crewdson’s narrative is so complex — crammedwith such an array of human and viral characters — that readers may sympathizewith those who hesitated to condemn Gallo. On the last page, Crewdson says onlyGallo can answer ”the most compelling question” raised by this story: ”Had hesomehow convinced himself that all the lies were true? Or had he known betterall along?” I wish Crewdson had tried harder to arrive at an answer, perhaps byproviding more analysis of Gallo’s personality. At various points he quotessources suggesting that Gallo was mentally disturbed. Crewdson, who won aPulitzer Prize in 1981 as a reporter for The New York Times, should have madesome effort to evaluate these innuendoes rather than simply repeating them.

This issue bears on a larger one: was Gallo’s behavior soextreme as to be anomalous, or was it to some extent encouraged by what Crewdsoncalls a ”hypercompetitive” scientific culture? If the latter, what can be doneto reduce the likelihood of such corrosive incidents? If ”Science Fictions”forces scientists to address these difficult questions — and it should — itwill have served its purpose.

John Horgan is the author of ‘The Undiscovered Mind ‘and the forthcoming  Ends of Mysticism.’

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