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Dispute behind Nobel Prize for HIV research

The announcement of the 2008 Nobel Prize in medicine brings another chapter, perhaps the concluding one, to one of the ugliest controversies in modern medical science.

The announcement of the 2008 Nobel Prize in medicine to French researchers Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier brings another chapter, perhaps the concluding one, to one of the ugliest controversies in modern medical science, charges involving allegations of theft and deception.

Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier were awarded for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

When the first cases of what is now known as AIDS appeared in 1981, no one knew the cause. Still, for a series of reasons, some scientists suspected a family of viruses known as retroviruses. As it turned out, the actual culprit, HIV, resides in that family.

One of the first to start the search for the viruses was Dr. Robert Gallo, then at the National Cancer Institute. Gallo had previously found two other viruses called HTLV-1 and HTLV-2 that caused rare blood cancers. Gallo was, and is, a fiercely competitive man. In the opinion of many, he is also bombastic, condescending and often cruel.

At the same time a group of young French scientists led by Dr. Barré-Sinoussi started looking for retroviruses as a cause. French research is far more hierarchical than American science, so Barré-Sinoussi could work only under the authority of the director of the Pasteur Institute, the government institution where she held an appointment.

Dr. Montagnier, the director, is an authoritarian, aloof figure. He knew little of retroviruses, and Barré-Sinoussi and her colleagues had to spend many afternoons explaining to him what a retrovirus was and why they believed one to be the cause of the new disease.

In early 1983, the young French scientists found a suspect virus they called LAV (lymphadenopathy-associated virus). Montagnier published those findings in May 1983 so that other researchers could test his results, the standard way science works.

In July, the Pasteur Institute sent a sample of LAV to Gallo. Another sample of LAV was sent in September. By December, Gallo's lab was successfully cultivating LAV.

Charges of stolen virus
But Gallo believed AIDS had to be caused by some kind of HTLV. At a meeting in a ski resort in Utah, Montagnier presented his findings. According to those present, Gallo abused him verbally with a memorable viciousness. Part of the problem was Montagnier’s limited command of both English and retroviruses. Clearly, Gallo sensed an impending battle and wanted to draw the first blood.

Later that December, Gallo published a paper claiming he had found the virus and he dubbed it HTLV-III.

On April 23, 1984, Margaret Heckler, the secretary of health and human services, announced that Gallo had isolated the virus which caused AIDS, that it was named HTLV-III, and that there would soon be a commercially available test able to detect the virus. She also said a vaccine would be available within six months, but that is another story.

Immediately, the French responded with outraged statements and with lawsuits. It was not just a matter of pride. Hundreds of millions of dollars in patent rights for those tests were at stake. The French claimed repeatedly that Gallo had stolen their virus. A series of investigative newspaper reports eventually agreed with the charges about Gallo. Finally, a study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health came to the same conclusion.

The aftermath of the dispute only ended officially in 1987, when the president of the United States and the prime minister of France announced a joint agreement declaring that Gallo and Montagnier shared credit for the discovery, and that they and their governments would share the patent royalties. To my knowledge, no scientific controversy ever reached such a high political level.

Over the years Gallo and Montagnier occasionally appeared in public together, feigning cordiality. But it is no secret they detest one another.

The Nobel Prize remains the highest goal to which a scientist can aspire. It's long been thought there would be no prize for HIV because the Nobel committee often avoids controversy. In fact, the Committee Monday declared the controversy is over: The French discovered the viruses that cause AIDS.