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In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS
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Interview with Dr. Robert Gallo

This is the first oral history interview with Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute concerning the history of AIDS at the National Institutes of Health. The date is 25 August 1994. The interviewers are Dr. Victoria A. Harden, Director of the NIH Historical Office, and Dennis Rodrigues, program analyst, NIH Historical Office. The interview takes place in Dr. Gallo's laboratory in Building 37, Room 6A11, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.

Harden: Dr. Gallo, we would like to start by discussing certain aspects of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when you first arrived in 1965. You have detailed your early education and your family life in your book Virus Hunting. Could you describe the size of the NIH campus, the environment at NIH for an intramural investigator, and perhaps some of the people who seemed to be leading figures at that time?

Gallo: I could describe the environment at that time, first physically, and then intellectually, and also some of the scientists who were here.

Physically I remember the campus as a rather beautiful place, with more trees than there are now. If I remember correctly, there was even a little brook that ran through part of the campus. There were many fewer buildings at that time. I actually lived next door to the campus. I used to crawl under a fence to get to work every day. Rather than going out on to Old Georgetown Road and coming in the normal route, I would just go into my backyard, under a fence, cross, and walk along a nice path among trees and with a little brook nearby to Building 10, the Clinical Center. I do not want to say the campus was pastoral, but it was suburban and still had a wooded area.

Geographically it was a nice place to work, and it was so convenient for me to live next door. Nonetheless, I had a feeling of the immensity of NIH, that it was something beyond me, that it was incredible that I was there. There were all kinds of activities going on that I felt that I would never understand, and all kinds of major scientific figures who were remote from me. So I was excited by the very fact that I was at NIH. But I did not have the feeling that I could ever really grasp, or understand it; as I said, it seemed immense to me, even though there were many fewer buildings.

The scientists that I had contact with, since I was in the Clinical Center, were, of course, principally clinical investigators, though Building 10 had then–and still does have–a number of basic scientists working in it. Clearly, in the second half of the sixties, the most exciting and visible research in basic science at NIH was [Dr.] Marshall Nirenberg's work. That was the time of the breaking of the genetic code. I cannot remember if that was the first project that I thought about, but Nirenberg was the first person I wanted to work with after finishing my Clinical Associate Program.

That was also the first time leukemia was cured. And I was on those wards at the Clinical Center. I had come from the University of Chicago to NIH not believing that approaches by combination chemotherapy could do very much for people with leukemia. I thought that it was not a very sophisticated therapy. It was not the kind of science that I wanted to be involved in. Then, while I was on those wards, with my own eyes I saw children beginning to be cured of leukemia for the first time.

NCI [National Cancer Institute] was not alone in this breakthrough. Other institutions like Sloan-Kettering [Cancer Center in New York] were heavily involved. But much of the pioneering work was done at NIH, certainly not by me, but by people around me. There was the development of supportive care for children who went into heart failure when they were given blood. The children were anemic. They had no platelets and they needed blood because they would hemorrhage, sometimes to death. The simple act of concentrating platelets, red cells, and white blood cells to fight infection allowed more children to survive and more intensive chemotherapy. It sounds simple, but it had not been done before.

People like [Dr. Emil J.] Freireich, [Dr. Ronald] Ron Janke, [Dr]. Emil Frei–and the people who worked with them–did that. It is almost a blur in my mind now; people were coming and going all the time. Those clinical investigators in NCI and leukemia research were major figures. Frei and Freireich left shortly after I came, but that work was continued by [Dr.] Paul Carbone, now Head of the Cancer Center at Wisconsin [University of Wisconsin, Madison].

[Dr. Vincent] Vince DeVita was away at Yale [University] for a sabbatical when I arrived. He came back to NIH a year or two later and started combination chemotherapy for patients with Hodgkin's disease for the first time. Concomitantly, [Dr.] Henry Kaplan was getting the first cures at Stanford [University] with radiation. Then DeVita's protocol, as well as those of some other people, began to get cures of Hodgkin's disease in that period of time.

Other basic scientists at NIH who were very visible that I was not connected with, but whom I certainly knew about, were people like [Drs. Christian] Chris Anfinsen, Sidney Udenfriend, and [Herbert] Weissbach. Then there were people in metabolic diseases whom I came to know well through the years, such as [Dr. Thomas] Tom Waldmann and [Dr. Donald] Don Chudee, in NCI's Metabolism Branch. I was rather interested in metabolic disorders so I followed some of their work quite closely. Two others were [Dr. Robert W.] Berliner and [Dr.] Vaughn Weedon. Even though I was not connected to them–there was also [Dr. Donald] Don Fredrickson–I followed that work with quite a bit of interest. Naturally cardiovascular physiology–led by [Dr. Eugene] Braunwald– was universally recognized as an exciting laboratory at that time. From the top of my head, those would be the names that I recall as most obvious to me then.

Harden: In your book you stated that the late 1960s was a time when many young M.D.s in the United States idealized academic research. Then you said that this was a state of mind that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Could you expand on that statement?

Gallo: Yes. I do not see as much in young people anymore the attitude that I saw in myself and other young people then. Maybe it is a process of getting older and I do not see it because I am no longer a young person. But there seems to me to have been a decided change.

I was mentioning names of leading figures at NIH to you. I forgot the people in virology. I was not in virology when I first came to NIH. But a few years later there was [Dr. Robert] Bob Huebner, and [Dr. Wallace P.] Rowe. There was also the man who got sick with a neurological disease from a virus. I cannot remember his name at the moment. These were major figures.

I think that, for a person coming out of medical school, internship, and residency, it was very exciting just to see people with such reputations, and working in a place such as NIH was almost awesome for me. I do not know how to describe it, other than sounding naive, but I am not exaggerating.

Harden: This brings up the question of why did you stay at NIH and not go to an academic center?

Gallo: It is a little complicated because I always thought I wanted to go back to a university and do what I was supposed to do, which was the famous triad of teaching, research, and clinical work. I never thought that I would just do pure laboratory work. If so, what did I get an M.D. for? Was I not at a disadvantage having done so? Would I ever do what I could do best, after giving all that up? I never thought that I would stay at NIH and just do laboratory research.

What happened is that one year led to another and I became more and more removed from medicine. I began saying to myself, “This is what I really want to do.” But I was still planning to go back to a university because I wanted to teach. If I was not going to be a clinician, at least I was going to be a teacher. But then the research work gets interesting, or exciting, however you want to describe it, and you become addicted to it and reasonably productive. NIH was a wonderful place to work. There was constant stimulation from so many good people, easy access to technology from so much diverse science around me, and the steadiness of funding.

If there are different kinds of scientists, then maybe I see myself as a gambler. There are many places where you cannot be a gambler because there is pressure for you to obtain year-to-year funding for your spending. But if you know you have money for five to ten years, or you are fairly certain of it, then you can ask longer-range questions in your scientific research. I thought that security of funding was the best reason for staying at NIH. I also believed then that at NIH you could bring ideas from the laboratory to the clinic as well as at any place in America, although I did not know that for sure. I do not know if that is true now. In fact, I doubt it. But, at that time, that was my thinking, and being in the Clinical Center added to it because I had very frequent contact with clinical investigators and clinicians.

But today, when I see young people, I do not get the feeling that they are so excitedly grateful that they are able to be involved in research and medicine. It is a given for them. I just do not see the same love.

Harden: You began by working with Dr. Seymour Perry...

Gallo: I am sorry. There is one other aspect of the attitude to research that I should comment on. I think that part of it also is the maturity of modern biomedical science. It is a business now. Once that happens, the age of innocence is over. People often ask–and have asked me, and I know that I ask many scientists–whether getting into industry, the developments in biotechnology, and the companies that have resulted, is good or bad? The answer is, “It is both.” It is good because it catalyzes science, making it move forward to applications of research, which is the ultimate goal. I believe the good far outweighs the bad.

But the other side of the issue is that many scientists now have opportunities to be involved with companies. Young people will also see immediate opportunities in industry. In the period 1962 to 1965–when I was in training, or coming to NIH, there were great industrial scientists, but they were unusual. Most of the time, if you were an M.D. who wanted to do research, and you went into a company, you felt that you had failed in some way. There were exceptions without doubt, and it is important to emphasize this–many exceptions–but, in general, that was the attitude. Whereas today it seems as though going into the biotechnology industry is often a priority. That is a major switch.

Sorry, I interrupted your question.

Harden: That is all right. I just wanted to return to when you first arrived at NIH and were working with Dr. Seymour Perry. Would you comment on him as a mentor?

Gallo: Yes. Certainly, when you asked me about important figures at NIH, I should immediately have mentioned my own mentor. The reason that I did not is that during my first year I was at a distance from him. He was in more of an administrative rather than a clinical position, so I did not have daily, or even weekly, contact with him during the first year that I was here.

It was in the later part of my second year that I had a lot of contact with Sy Perry, because at that time I joined a newly formed department which was called the Human Tumor Cell Biology Branch. This laboratory–of which I am now the Chief–the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology, is an offshoot of that, but it is devoted more to basic science. The time I spent with Sy Perry was my introduction to research on white blood cells.

When I was a medical student, I had worked with red blood cells, erythropoietin, and so on, but my introduction to white blood cell research, to cell kinetics, was at NIH. I think I could reasonably say that it was my first serious taste of biochemistry, or of getting into basic science. Sy had a very strong appreciation of the application of basic science to the study of the biology of the white blood cells. He had already formed, before I came, a connection with the Laboratory of Physiology. In the Laboratory of Physiology, there was–as there still is today–[Dr. Edward] Ted Breitman, who was closely connected to Sy Perry at the time as a Ph.D. biochemist. In a way I bridged the two laboratories as Buzz Cooper had done years before me. He is now at the University of Pennsylvania, or maybe he has moved from there. But, anyway, I just continued to do that kind of work.

This was also training for me in enzymology, as well as my first experience with culturing, obtaining, and handling human white blood cells and control cells from normal donors, PHA-stimulated lymphocytes. I remember those days very vividly. It was a time when people had just become able to separate lymphocytes from the neutrophils and the rest of the white blood cells. The method was by packing long columns with nylon fibers. The granulocytes would be trapped, and the lymphocytes would fall through. We began using normal lymphocytes stimulated with phytohemagglutinin, which had just been discovered by accident by [Drs.] Peter Nowell and Hungerford, I believe–or was it Nowell alone–at the University of Pennsylvania. They found that a certain plant extract, a certain plant agglutinin, could make human lymphocytes divide as a mitogenic factor mimicking–but being even better than–an antigen that a T cell was primed to. We barely knew the difference at that time between T and B cells. What I mean is that I do not know if we did know this at the beginning. I cannot remember whether we fully understood this.

I was comparing biochemically those PHA-stimulated lymphocytes to leukemic lymphoblasts from childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia because this was a proliferating cell, a blast. We did a lot of comparative biochemistry. But it was a period when we did not have adequate notions of what to compare with what.

Today there are too many ideas. There are 100 things you want to compare. But back then you were just poking around saying, “Well, I think DNA is important. Maybe I should look at DNA polymerase as the enzymes that make DNA. I would like to study transfer RNA, because I believe that in translational control of protein synthesis–protein synthesis is important to the differentiation of a blood cell and leukemic cells do not differentiate properly–so maybe I should learn about transfer RNA.”

Hence, my interest in Marshall Nirenberg was more than the average. I almost joined his laboratory, but then [Dr.] Sidney Pestka left Nirenberg's laboratory, came to NCI, and was working near me. I simply joined up with Sidney Pestka, and got a lot of training in transfer RNA molecular biology. It was my first taste of molecular biology, which was in its infancy at the time.

Sy Perry was a warm person who gave me opportunity, much liberty, and guidance any time I needed it. I would say he was as perfect a mentor as anyone could ask for, and far more patient than I, in a similar role, would ever have been with somebody like me. Sy always says that he would get to NIH early so he could avoid people and get his work done before the day started. He said–I did not remember this, but he said it at a party recently–that I would be at his door either before, or just after, he got in there, bothering him, asking for more of this, and more of that, more funding for whatever, and more space, and so on.

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