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​Dr. Robert Gallo ’59 meets students in the Liberal Arts Honors Program
for lunch.


Gallo ’59, HIV Co-Discoverer,  Shares Expertise with Students

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a personal reflection on a recent campus visit and talk by Dr. Robert Gallo ’59, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

By Genevieve M. Ilg '14

While I was walking out of Albertus Magnus Hall, Providence College’s science complex, I turned to one of my classmates and said, “I just spent three hours with one of the world’s most influential scientists.”

As a member of the Liberal Arts Honors Program, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Robert Gallo ’59, the co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), who later spoke in the program’s colloquium: HIV: Closer to a Cure.

The acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic was initially reported in 1981. In 1983, researchers identified the retrovirus that causes AIDS, first in France (lymphoadenopathy virus-LAV) and then in the United States (human T cell lympho-tropic virus III- HTLV-III and the AIDS associated retrovirus -ARV). The retrovirus was renamed the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1986.

Thirty years later, the AIDS epidemic remains one of the major health issues that affects society today.

The interdisciplinary course, taught by Dr. Charles Toth, associate professor and chair of biology, is intended to provide students with a comprehensive background of HIV, including its molecular biology, the role of humans’ immune response, vaccine research and drug development, prevention and transmission, its viral pathogenesis, world-wild public health issues, bioethical concerns in treatment, the social ecology and epidemiology of the disease, and its history.

Although one may expect this course to be for those studying biology, students of various backgrounds – ranging from humanities to business – enrolled, keeping the course consistent with the liberal arts tradition at PC.

As a health policy and management major, with a minor in philosophy, I chose to take this course because of its interdisciplinary approach in covering one of the most prominent epidemics in the world.

I intend to pursue nursing school after graduation, so having an opportunity to take this course was undeniably valuable. It allowed me to focus extensively on a particular medical topic that will help me become an agent for change and one day use my education to protect health as a human right.

History in the making

As I approached the executive dining room, my mind began racing with questions for the world-renowned scientist. Nervous for the intimate luncheon, I was immediately put at ease when he smiled, shook my hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Bob.”

Half the class accompanied Gallo for lunch. For an hour and a half, he shared stories and jokes about his time at PC, the various patients he helped during his residency program, his work at the National Institute of Virology, and other medical and health topics.

Later, we joined the other half of the class and for two hours discussed his work with leukemia and HIV.

After PC, he earned his M.D. at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, completed his residency at the University of Chicago, and became a researcher at the National Cancer Institute.

“My choice of profession was influenced by the early death of my sister from leukemia, a disease to which I initially dedicated much of my research,” he said.

Gallo studied retroviruses and their relationships to leukemia. Researchers are able to grow T-cells and study the viruses that affect them, such as human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV), which is the first retrovirus identified in humans that scientists isolated in Gallo’s lab.

Gallo explained that he and his collaborators published a series of four papers in the journal Science demonstrating that the HTLV-III, in the belief that the virus was related to the leukemia viruses of Gallo’s earlier work, was the cause of AIDS. Gallo was awarded the Lasker Award in 1986 for determining that the retrovirus now known as HIV-1 is the cause of AIDS.

He is now the director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Impact of discovery

During the colloquium, he opened the class up to a question-and-answer session about the impact of the discovery of HIV.

“There is no cure for HIV. Those, as reported in the media, who were called ‘functionally cured’ no longer have the disease in their plasma. But to cure HIV would mean we eradicated each and every sequence of it, and that has not happened,” Gallo said.

Although those who have HIV can live long lives due to the discovery of antiretroviral therapy, he continued to explain how education and awareness about prevention and transmission of HIV are important, but insufficient. 

“The media can contribute to massive misinterpretations. I think the only way to cure HIV is to focus on CCR5 (a protein on the white blood cells that aid in the immune system’s response) and nothing else. The problem with HIV is its integration in the genes, and you need to be able to have an immune system that is constantly there to fight it,” he said.

He explained that the biggest obstacle in HIV research is combating the politics concerning discovery.

“When talking with a scientist, you must be aware of not only the techniques used in discovery, but of the historical problems the scientist faced. When this work was published, many people believed that retrovirus could not exist in man and that HIV does not cause AIDS. That was devastating to me and the integrity of the work,” he said.

Gallo concluded the session with his thoughts on curing HIV. 

He said, “I wouldn’t work on it if I thought it couldn’t be done.”

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