Sunday, April 01, 2007

Robert Gallo, and some HIV history

A few days back, Robert Gallo, head of the Institute of Human Virology gave a rather interesting talk here. Gallo is one of the early pioneers in the study of human viruses, and of course, played a major role in the discovery of many human viruses, including HIV. Instead of talking about recent data, Gallo chose to give a broad overview of the history and timelines of research in human virology.

I’m not going to summarize all aspects of the talk, since there are too many little details. But there were a few points that I thought were well worth remembering. Gallo pointed out how people (scientists included) have such short memories. Humans seem to have only a 30 year memory of history. Around 1919, there was a huge influenza pandemic worldwide that killed millions. Yet around 1950, people were saying microbiology (including the study of viruses) was an old field. We “knew” all that we needed to about microbes. People said that again in the late seventies/early eighties, when they said that the new frontier was degenerative diseases. I’ve always thought such statements were terrible and expressed a rare ignorance as well as arrogance. I mean, over 99% of all living organisms (in terms of number of species or total biomass) are microbiological in origin!

Gallo went on to talk about the early years of virology and retroviruses. In the seventies, people confidently scoffed at the suggestions that viruses could cause cancer. Yet today we know that nearly 20% of all cancers are caused by viruses or have a strong viral component to their metastasis. Even more interesting were the ideas on human retroviruses. Many people did not believe that there were retroviruses in humans, while others said they were fringe viruses that couldn’t cause disease. But Gallo and others in the 70’s had laid down a lot of basic science research that enabled the later identification of HIV, and the subsequent rapid characterization of the virus, and showing that these viruses attacked immune cells (the helper T cells) that resulted in a severely compromised immune system.

There was also an interesting section where he talked about current antiretroviral drugs that are successfully being used to treat AIDS patients. Once again, human memory appears to be short. More people are now (correctly) arguing that more money needs to be spent on education and AIDS awareness, as well as making treatment available for AIDS patients. However, they addendum is that there is little need for basic research on AIDS, and the focus should now solely be on making treatment available. Gallo pointed out that it was the basic research done 20-30 years ago, even before human retroviruses were discovered, that enabled research with cultured T cells, as well as helped rapidly characterize the virus. Similarly, the modern drugs that were finally available were built on a mountain of knowledge that came from basic, and not applied, research. It is actually increasingly important to continue to increase spending and resources for basic research, because though the results are not immediately apparent, the rewards 20-30 years down the line are tremendous. Unfortunately, economies and countries seem to be unable to think beyond 5 years ahead, and basic science ends up being collateral damage.

Finally, Gallo came out strongly against a number of people who continue to insist that AIDS is not caused by HIV (though the evidence for it is now so vast and compelling that it’s almost as obvious as gravity). While I’m not going to elaborate the various reasons or ideologies behind people who don’t want to accept this, some of their actions are certainly responsible for the deaths of many, many people in the world. By saying the disease is caused only by “bad” lifestyles, or a combination of diet and lifestyle, and therefore pooh-poohing any treatment or options of vaccines, far too many people have had to suffer for it.

A good talk, and a sobering reminder for a lot of us, on AIDS and its global impact.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! As someone with a business background, I am very used to the short organizational memories, especially when it comes to org structures. You have structure A. Things are not going so well, so you move to structure B. And then a year later, you say "hey, maybe structure A is the solution" and so on...

But with science, it a short memory is much more dangerous. Is there a solution?

Wavefunction said...

Gallo makes a good point about the importance of basic research. One can say that about many other things, including electronics. In the 80s, even companies like Bell Labs and IBM were renowned for their basic research, which fueled the information technology and electronics age. But this inattention to basic research seems to be one of the fallouts of the modern myopic vision of capitalism, where pleasing share-holders is the priority. As expected, this growth will die out in 20 or 30 years if basic research does not supply the tools to do this.
About microbiology, E O Wilson said that given another chance today, he would be a microbiologist. But people are now being forced to pay attention to microbiology because of the resurgence of so many infectious diseases and antibiotic-resistant strains. There was a good review in Nat. Rev. Drug. Disc. a couple of months ago.
Drugs for bad bugs: confronting the challenges of antibacterial discovery
David J. Payne, Michael N. Gwynn, David J. Holmes and David L. Pompliano
p29 | doi:10.1038/nrd2201

Also, one of the reasons people have short term memory is because they take things for granted. Everyone thinks penicillin was the most important first antibiotic. But few people are aware of the even greater role that sulfa drugs played before that. Thomas Hager has written a great book which puts this story into perspective which you may like:
"The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug"

As an aside, I am sure you are aware of the controversial role that Gallo played in the HIV discovery, and how he tried to elbow his way into getting priority. One of the best dramatizations I have seen of the discovery of HIV is "And the Band Played on" where an acerbic Alan Alda plays Gallo.

Anonymous said...

>Humans seem to have only a 30 year memory of history.

And, we are talkng about extending lifespan and living forever. Can't imagine what the future holds.

>I’ve always thought such statements were terrible and expressed a rare ignorance as well as arrogance.

As they say, the trouble with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along. Add arrogance to it and we've got one messed-up world.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Love the new look!

Sunil said...

Shripriya......yes, some of the short-sightedness in research comes from an excessive "corporatization" of research and funding. Overall though, i don't think it is too bleak. The thing about science and scientists is that there are always people who think differently, and I think people are aware of these problems. So, it might work out. But sometimes people responsible for science (policy makers/funding agencies/government) can be more short sighted. I don't know about solutions.

Ashutosh.....that's a very well thought out comment. I totally agree with your views on (very) basic research, since my own research is extremely fundamental (with no visible near future applications)! You need that for innovations 10-20 years down the line. If a lot of basic research is cut down today, there will be innovations and new products for another 5 years, but then they'll dry up.

Microbiology is absolutely fascinating, at so many levels. Because we can't see it we tend to oversimplify it. But with 99% of all life (and the earliest life on earth), there is just so much we can constantly learn from microbes.
Great points on sufla drugs, and thanks for that link!

Yes....Gallo has had his controversies, but he's been in the field from before the discovery of human retroviruses, and there's a lot of knowledge there.

Selva........indeed. Isn't it amazing that some of the most ignorant people are so arrogantly confident? I should write down that statement somewhere, and remember it.

Sujatha, thanks! It's constant work in progress, and i'll keep fiddling with it. All suggestions welcome.

CuriousCat said...

Nice post sunil, as always. Your comments in the last paragraph reminded me of an argument I had with this not-to-be-named republican a while back. HE was trying to sell me the theory that good people get cancer and bad people get AIDS. So money should be spent on Cancer research and not AIDS :)

Sunil said...

what's more upsetting is that this not-to-be-named person probably has many many more who share his views. What can I say to that?

Anonymous said...

interesting,but I wonder if Gallo could tell someone like yourself with equal to the laws of gravity understanding which came first S.A.I.D.S. or A.I.D.S.?