Gallo's Meeting: A Scientific 'Folk Festival'

"Gallo's meeting has juice, that's what it's got," declares Cecil H. Fox, an experimental pathologist, biochemist, and 20-year NIH veteran who is now president of Molecular Histology Laboratories Inc., Gaithersburg, Md. "That is, there's a lot of interpersonal contact, there are colorful people that go to it, there are discussions, disagreements, and, frequently, hard feelings and good feelings that come out of it. It's what scienti

Nov 14, 1994
Franklin Hoke
Like Robert Gallo the scientist, Robert Gallo the scientific impresario can be brilliant and engaging, excessive and abrasive, according to some of the 800 AIDS investigators from around the world attending his 10th annual lab meeting last month. They say Gallo's eclectic touch is evident throughout the gathering, which they consider one of the most important of the year--almost as much for the community feeling it brings to the far-flung scientists battling the disease complex as for the new research presented there.

"Gallo's meeting has juice, that's what it's got," declares Cecil H. Fox, an experimental pathologist, biochemist, and 20-year NIH veteran who is now president of Molecular Histology Laboratories Inc., Gaithersburg, Md. "That is, there's a lot of interpersonal contact, there are colorful people that go to it, there are discussions, disagreements, and, frequently, hard feelings and good feelings that come out of it. It's what scientific meetings are supposed to be about. It's not a group of wooden people flying in on an airplane, getting off the plane, coming to the hotel or whatever it is, delivering a talk that they've delivered six times in the previous two months, getting back on the plane, and leaving."

Fox adds that, among scientific meetings, "this is a folk festival." Surprising, perhaps, to outsiders is the fact that much publicized and long-running official investigations of alleged scientific misconduct by Gallo and members of his lab, which were discontinued in November 1993, appear to have had little impact on attendance at the meeting or on its overall value to scientists.

The meeting, sponsored by Gallo's Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology in the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, runs for seven days--from September 25 to October 1 this year--10 hours a day, with 10 minutes scheduled for each talk. Even so, Gallo says, the large number of worthy papers presented this year required that the meeting be broken into concurrent sessions for the first time. "I never wanted it to happen, but the only alternative was to make this eight, nine, or 10 days," he explains.

Gallo exerts a high degree of personal control over the meeting's agenda, researchers say, and some of its most valuable and unique aspects strongly bear his imprint. For example, Gallo selects and invites the much-praised roster of special lecturers, top scientists not working directly on AIDS but whose research often proves to have implications for the field. Some of the often-criticized features of the event, too, spring from the same source. Here, scientists at the meeting point to what they call an overwhelming number of papers presented with insufficient screening, resulting in a "diluted" quality of the sessions and, this year, in undesirable concurrent sessions that undermine the meeting's feeling of unity. Still and all, the scientists come.

"This is the real AIDS researchers' meeting," says Candace Pert, a psychopharmacologist and former NIH investigator now with Peptide Research, a Rockville, Md.-based consulting firm. According to Pert, the larger international AIDS meeting, held in Yokohama, Japan, this year, is "too inconvenient and too much infiltrated by nonscientific issues."

The researchers who come to the meeting are not blind to the misconduct charges that have dogged Gallo for much of the past decade. The investigations revolved around accusations that he misappropriated credit in 1984 for the discovery of HIV from Luc Montagnier and his researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. But while a number of the meeting participants believe some portion of the charges, they also tend to be somewhat forgiving.

"He's a rogue, but a likable one," says one British researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity. She says she was disinclined to attend when invited by Gallo several years ago, because of the controversy surrounding his lab. Since then, she has come to every meeting. "It's a large meeting but keeps its small-meeting feel. I don't know how he does it."

"A few years ago, I stopped worrying about credit and how many more papers I was going to publish," says Pert. "I've published my 250 papers, and I'm really focused on finding cures for human diseases. So, if [Gallo] should steal something that I think of that enables him to make progress, I'd feel good about it. He does have this reputation, but I think it's undeserved on a certain level."

A French researcher, who asks not to be identified, says angry feelings still run high, at least in her country, concerning the just apportionment of credit between Montagnier and Gallo for discovering HIV. Nevertheless, she says, many French scientists have continued to attend the meeting regularly, and she has attended Gallo's meeting every year since 1985.

This year, there was talk in the halls that this might be the last Gallo meeting to be held in the Washington, D.C., area--or, in any case, the last to be held at government expense. Rumors circulated that Gallo has been asked to leave NIH and to retire from government in return for a permanent discontinuation of the misconduct investigations. Other speculation suggested he may return to his alma mater in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson University, or establish a university-affiliated institute near NIH with at least one other high-profile AIDS researcher. Gallo acknowledges that he is engaged in negotiations with several universities and that he would like to move into academia (see interview on page 12).

"What I like about the Gallo meeting is that it's not just about AIDS," says Terri H. Finkel, an immunologist working on T-cell signaling at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver, where she is head of the laboratory of pediatric research. "Eclectic is the word that comes to mind, because he brings in people that may not be in the field [of AIDS], but touch on it in various ways."

As examples, Finkel cites the talks given by NIH neuroscientist and Nobelist D. Carleton Gajdusek on infectious amyloids, by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Roger M. Perlmutter of the University of Washington, Seattle, on T-cell development and signaling, and by David Beach, another Hughes investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, on cell-cycle kinases.

"All of these can help us better understand HIV, although the people aren't in that field," Finkel says. "And that's really what HIV [research] needs." She points to recent exhortations by Bernard Fields (Nature, 369:95-6, 1994) and NIH Office of AIDS Research head William Paul for a return to basic research in AIDS investigations. "Gallo's meeting has been trying to do that, and, of the AIDS meetings, it's unique in trying to take a broader view."

Finkel's own talk, titled "How Does HIV Kill T Cells?", was included in a session on apoptosis--programmed cell death, or cell suicide--and fit into one of several distinct scientific themes evident at the meeting. In her study, Finkel explored possible signaling mechanisms by which HIV may be killing T cells other than the cells actually infected with the virus.

"The dogma certainly is that HIV itself kills cells, that it's a cytopathic infection, and so we assumed that the infected cells would be apoptotic," Finkel says. "Probably the most surprising result that came out of this study was that the infected cells were not apoptotic--it was the bystander cells that were apoptotic. That was a complete surprise and may mean the virus has ways of protecting itself [and the infected cell] from apoptosis."

"Back in the early days, people were so excited that they'd found the virus," says Pert. "The concept was that the virus directly infected lymphocytes, and that's the pathogenesis. But the subtheme [that emerged at this meeting] is that the viral proteins do all kinds of things by acting at receptors, by acting at a distance, so that only a very small percentage of the cells in the immune system actually need to be infected, because they're putting out this extremely toxic little protein. And it's really getting more play."

"We needed very badly to have a summary roundtable on how the T cells are lost," says Gallo, noting that a number of studies presented offered conflicting views on the question of whether HIV kills T cells directly or indirectly. "That general area was, to me, one of the high points of the meeting, but without clear-cut resolution."

One of the most important presentations, according to Gallo, recapped HIV vaccine work being done with chimpanzees by Marc P. Girard of the Pasteur Institute. In this study and others, vaccines based on HIV envelope proteins, such as gp120 and gp160, have been shown to stimulate significant immune responses in chimpanzees.

"This is a chimpanzee study just using the viral protein," Gallo says. "It's the kind that got refused recently for clinical trials [by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci in June], the kind that one finds it hard to believe would do something. Nonetheless, [the vaccine] has protected chimps, both by mucosal infection and intravenous infection [routes], and it's protected against a few different strains."

One of the two vaccines for which clinical trials were refused further United States government support this summer was a gp120 vaccine developed by Genentech Inc. of South San Francisco, Calif. Last month, the World Health Organization in Geneva, after consulting much of the same preliminary data as did Fauci, agreed to fund large-scale clinical trials that will include the Genentech vaccine.

The clinical scientist managing the trials for Genentech is Don Francis, a researcher whose longtime criticism of Gallo and his lab dates to the mid-1980s, when Francis was with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. At that time, a dispute flared between Francis and Gallo, with each accusing the other of impeding research progress against AIDS by controlling access to crucial experimental samples and reagents.

Francis, who did not attend the Gallo meeting, acknowledges that the gathering "has become, traditionally, an interesting scientific affair." And he understands that most scientists do not make a link between the allegations against Gallo's lab and their decision to attend his meeting, although he finds it surprising.

"Science is the pursuit of the truth," Francis says. "How can a meeting designed to uncover the truths of nature be hosted by a group--not necessarily an individual, but by a group--with a questionable history of honesty? That's the underlying question. And this [meeting] is really hosted by the United States government, represented by that group and NIH. How does that continue, I wonder?"

Other researchers, whether they do or do not believe the charges leveled against Gallo and his lab, seem ready to move on to other discussions.

"It's really a pity that the discussion of whether [Gallo] stole the virus from the French or not has eclipsed the fact that he's a really original and brilliant scientist," says Pert. "The French sent him the virus because they knew he could grow it, and they couldn't grow it. So, I respect his brilliance--and maybe he's growing and learning to give more credit to other people."

"I don't think it's worth pursuing any longer," Fox comments. "[But] this is a case of someone marked with the sign of Cain. That's it. He wasn't exonerated, remember." Like others, Fox, who is a veteran of the Gallo meetings, praises many of the speakers at this year's event while criticizing the number of low-quality papers presented, the split sessions, and even the choice of hotel, which was changed from previous gatherings.

"The old meetings that were held down in the basement of this hotel in Bethesda were wonderful, because it was like the old experiments in sensory deprivation," says Fox. "What you did was you went down into this chamber, this darkened chamber, and you were sensorily deprived. You sat there, and you could see the podium and the lights on the podium and the slides, and you didn't try to pay attention. But you emerged, mole-like, six or seven days later with a reordered understanding of the state of science associated with lentiviruses. It was an osmotic learning experience."