AIDS Papers Heard 'Round the World

On this day in 1984, virologist Robert Gallo and his co-workers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health published four groundbreaking papers in Science in which they provided persuasive evidence that AIDS is caused by a retrovirus. Three of the papers dealt with the isolation and partial characterization of the retrovirus, which the researchers called HTLV-3. The Gallo team showed, for example, that the virus could be detected in nearly half of 97 individuals who either had AIDS or were at high risk of developing the disease, but in only one of 22 clinically normal homosexuals and in none of the 115 healthy heterosexuals tested.

The fourth paper described a method of testing for the presence of antibodies to HTLV-3 in human blood. Such a test had the potential to be a major moneymaker because there previously had been no definitive way of diagnosing AIDS, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had applied for a patent on the Gallo team's method a month earlier.

The papers and the patent application sparked controversy, however. Scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris argued that Gallo had essentially reisolated the same virus, called LAV, that the Pasteur's Luc Montagnier had previously linked to AIDS and had sent to Gallo's team for study a couple of years earlier. And indeed, subsequent sequencing of the genomes of Gallo's and Montagnier's viruses showed they were sufficiently similar to be identical. The patent dispute was settled when Montagnier and Gallo agreed to be listed on the patent as co-discoverers of the retrovirus, which was renamed human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by an international committee. The Science papers were also at the center of a long-running scientific misconduct investigation that led to charges that some details were misstated. Those charges were finally thrown out in 1993 by an HHS appeals board.