Durban - It’s frightening to think what would have happened if one man had given up on his quest for truth.
Robert Gallo, one of the world’s great scientists, and J.K Rowling, one of the world’s most popular authors, have one thing in common. They were both rejected at their first public airings.
Gallo, who is in Durban to receive an honorary doctorate from UKZN and to cement ties with HIV researchers at Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (Caprisa), gives a quirky smile when you suggest that Harry Potter and he have a similar history.
“Never thought of it like that, but, yes, you are right. Nobody can adequately describe the frustration when years of painstaking work is pooh-poohed and given the thumbs down.”
In Gallo’s case it was The Journal of Virology, one of the world’s most respected publications in the field of virus research, that rejected his team’s discovery of a new human retrovirus, subsequently named Human T-Lymphotropic Virus (HTLV-1).
That was in the early ‘80s at about the same time as a new unnamed terminal disease was baffling science.
The journal’s editor at the time insisted that Gallo and his team should not continue to perpetuate such controversy about retroviruses causing human disease.
On the wall of his Baltimore home is the framed, now famous, rejection letter.
“It’s a constant reminder that science is about pushing the boundaries,” he says. “Perhaps one day my bit of HIV memorabilia will be an interesting part of history.”
To say that Gallo had a passion to prove his thesis correct is an understatement.
Gallo’s sister had died of childhood leukaemia and when it had come to his turn to do research, leukaemia was his first target, isolating a new type of retrovirus that causes leukaemia in humans - human T-Lymphotropic viruses I and II - previously thought to occur only in animals.
“Making this connection was a critical part of global research,” he explains. “It paved the way for a greater understanding of some of our most devastating diseases.”
The publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Science accepted his findings - the same ones that had been previously rejected.
His basic findings were soon translated into effective treatments at the NIH Clinical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland, the US’s premier research hospital.
“With my own eyes I saw children, like my sister, beginning to benefit from leukaemia research for the first time,” he says. “But I knew there was so much more to uncover.”
We are sitting in the Caprisa boardroom in Durban, where today revolutionary ideas concerning the future of HIV therapy and cutting edge interventions to stop the spread of disease are part of everyday discussion.
“But back then,” says Gallo,“ the idea of an animal retrovirus morphing into an equivalent human virus was a political and sociological nightmare. Nobody wanted to hear things like that - there had to be something wrong with our findings. In many people’s view this was mad science. Animal retroviruses don’t occur in humans - those that said they did were bound to be castigated.”
His seminal and now historic study showed how these retroviruses had an enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, that enabled them to transcribe their RNA into DNA after entering a healthy cell. Once transcribed, a new virus could be born.
Among the sceptics about retroviruses like HTLV-1 causing human disease at that time was US president Gerald Ford, who wanted to know exactly how Gallo had come to his conclusions.
“When he referred to me as Dear Mr Gallow, I decided that it was an avenue I should steer away from,” he says with a wry smile.
“I remember when I, as a researcher of tumour viruses, used to enter a room of scientists they would jokingly refer to me as the man who came up with the rumour virus. Luckily I am pretty thick-skinned when it comes to science that I know is right.
“Being ridiculed for what I knew to be correct was something that I just had to live with.”
Gallo’s hunt for a human retrovirus is detailed in his book, Virus Hunting, which he says was written at the time when most scientists thought human retroviruses simply did not - could not - exist.
“There were huge holes in their argument and I had a very strong intuition that they were wrong.”
Like a modern day Galileo, Gallo has known the extremes of controversy and disappointment. Yet, whether it’s being snubbed in 2008 as a Nobel prize winner for his discovery of the retrovirus that causes Aids, or hitting yet another snag in the race to find the first successful Aids vaccine - “it’s still not close enough” - 78-year-old Gallo remains philosophical.
“This is a journey, not about what people think or don’t think, but about saving lives. Nothing else matters. We have had pandemics before, like influenza, polio when scientists thought it would never happen again, but it has. Eventually there will be answers, but it will take a global effort, a pooling of knowledge and skills to bring this pandemic to an end.”
Although best known for his role in showing that HIV is the cause of Aids, it was Gallo and his team who pioneered the development of the HIV blood test, which enabled health-care workers for the first time to screen for the Aids virus. The rapid implementation of the latter in the US and Europe probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
One of Gallo’s major breakthroughs was discovering one of the first cytokines, IL-2, which was then known as the T-cell growth factor - a protein made by T-cells. It resulted in human blood cells being able to be grown for the first time in the laboratory. He also discovered HTLV-1 and HTLV-2 as well as Human herpes virus 6.
Gallo was the most cited scientist in the world from 1980-1990, according to the Institute for Scientific Information, and he was ranked third in the world for scientific impact for the period 1983-2002. He has published close to 1 300 papers.
Currently he is focusing on his work with the Global Virus Network, which he founded to link researchers around the globe and share new information.