Office of NIH History
In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS
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Gelmann: Yes, they cast Gallo as a villain, whereas he should have been recognized as a saint. He has taken a terrible beating from the gay press. I have no idea why; it is beyond me. It really is. There have always been extremes with activism. I do not know that any of the extremes have dissuaded researchers. In fact, I cannot think of an instance where anyone has been dissuaded; it certainly politicized AIDS. AIDS is a very political field. I think some people decided not to get involved because they did not like the politics.

You like to go to your annual meeting. I go to the Cancer meetings; hear about things and talk to colleagues. In the 1980s, the AIDS meetings were a political and media circus. People were lining up on the streets; policemen were wrapping up people and taking them away; there were protests in the back of the room. You could not give a scientific talk. The real AIDS meeting was Gallo's laboratory meeting which had its roots years ago when he brought everyone out to Rockville just to get away and to hear about the data for two days. Those started long before AIDS. I remember doing that every June. After AIDS they became international events.

What keeps people in AIDS is the money. That is a tremendous determinant of the kind of research that gets done. The NIH announces, “We are giving out $20, $30, $50, $100 million dollars for this; give us proposals.” They will get proposals. The peer review process and the granting process are superb. They get the job done.

Rodrigues: Now, if we could jump back to your own work once again. I think we left off when you had moved over to the Medicine Branch and you were working with interferon and other therapeutics. I think you said you did that for about a year and a half?

Gelmann: It may be two. If you really needed the dates, I could get them for you. I still have some for the publications, for the clinical trials. I continue to keep the records, because these days who knows what people will try to dig up and complain about. I have, actually, all the records of the clinical trials.

Rodrigues: I just want to follow what work you did. Did you continue working with AIDS patients?

Gelmann: Yes. I continued to work with AIDS patients for the next two years. Then AZT came on, and [Dr. Samuel] Sam Broder, who was my boss, two levels above me, was at that time director of the Clinical Oncology Program. His laboratory had developed a drug testing assay and had obtained AZT and other nucleoside analogues from Burroughs Wellcome. When antiretroviral trials began, the focus of the NCI effort shifted away from Kaposi's sarcoma and the cancer aspects [of AIDS] to the anti-viral aspects. Sam and his colleagues were perfect investigators for those trials. I focused my interests elsewhere. I then got back more into cancer research.

Harden: When did you come to Georgetown?

Gelmann: I moved to Georgetown in October of 1988 at the time when the old Medicine Branch basically broke apart and everyone left except for two investigators. Three senior scientists went up to Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and, I think, five or six came to Georgetown. By that time, I was out of AIDS research completely.

Rodrigues: You have mentioned a number of people, some of whom we have talked to. Other than those people that we have already spoken about, are there any other individuals that you think might provide some new insight into these questions?

Gelmann: You are interested in early things? Geographically, at the NCI, there are Cliff Lane, Henry Masur, [Dr. Hiroaki] Mitsuya. Mitsuya is, in some ways, a Prometheus. He is a very gifted man with a mission and he accomplished a huge amount of work. He is the real father of AZT. Certainly, Sam was a driving force and, intellectually, is without peer. But Mitsuya developed the assays and deserves tremendous credit.

Harden: In the context of how science is organized and the issue of who gets the credit for the work, you have already mentioned a number of people in Gallo's and in Broder's laboratories who actually did the work, but the credit seems to accrue to the laboratory chief. Would you like to comment on that?

Gelmann: That is a sensitive topic. I am a laboratory chief myself. I do very few experiments and have a lot of people working for me. It is the way science works and it is different. I think Mitsuya has made a tremendous contribution and has gotten his due. I do not think Sam has shortchanged him. I am not sure that he could have done it without Sam. I think that was really an important collaboration between the two of them. But he has been very successful.

Bob's laboratory is bigger; Bob was once criticized for having more difficulty in sharing credit. I think that he has tried hard over the last five or six years to hear some of those criticisms and to change a little. I think his treatment of people such as [Dr.] Beatrice Hahn and [Dr.] George Shaw and [Dr.] Lee Ratner has been different from his treatment of Bernie Poiesz and Frank Ruscetti. He supported the careers of some of the most prominent HIV virologists in the United States. The disagreements with Poiesz and Ruscetti were legendary. It is a sensitive topic, but it is certainly not a secret. But I think that he was very kind to some of the younger people.

Harden: The reason I would like you to comment on this is because we are trying to communicate to people how science works.

Gelmann: Working in a laboratory and being a postdoctoral fellow, or being the junior person, is partly a training, even though no one knows the experiments better than the person who does them with his own two hands. No matter how slight, there is always a technical creativity in getting the experiments to work and in publishing reproducible results. But except in the rare instance where a young person has made a unique observation, the work is usually a collaboration with a senior person with more perspective. The senior investigators are the ones who keep their eyes on the goals and keep the research focused. That is the way most science happens today.

Scientists like [Dr.] Barbara McClintock, who worked by themselves for thirty years, are becoming increasingly rare, partly because of the technical challenges. Everything is so specialized and the experiments are technically demanding. There are people who closet themselves up in the laboratory, if they can fund themselves with one or two good grant proposals. There are a handful of people like that in the United States today. But barely a handful. I am on the outside of the intramural program looking in. I am a funded investigator with RO1 grants [investigator-initiated research proposals]; but, quite frankly, I feel a little uncomfortable unless I have a grant application pending somewhere. I always like to have one iron about to go into the fire. You have to pay all those people sitting in the laboratory.

Harden: From your experience in the intramural program and from being at a university, would you comment on what you think the value of the NIH intramural program is? Can it be done elsewhere or is it a unique set up?

Gelmann: There is no question that it is unique. It is probably too big; probably inefficient; and it is probably abused. Big deal. Nothing is perfect. Nothing will run perfectly. Science is inefficient and expensive by its nature. But there are things that you can do in the NIH that you just cannot do anywhere else. Where else are you going to get [Dr.] Jacob Maizel with a big super computer concentrating on certain problems? Where else can you get together the collection of young scientists to concentrate on something to produce? There are branches where huge million dollar efforts have turned into nothing. Who knows what will become of [Dr. Steven] Steve Rosenberg's immunotherapy. But you have to try. You do not know until ten or fifteen years down the road whether something has worked or not. It is a unique place for that reason. You can have well-funded, goal-directed work that really comes out of the investigator's imagination and creativity.

Clinically, I think it is unique also, although I see a continued erosion of the clinical activities in Building 10. That is, you can easily and quickly do pilot trials of agents in humans, which you basically cannot do anywhere else because of the restrictions on human experimentation. No testing in this country can be done fast in people, except in Building 10. Most drug companies, when they have new experimental agents and they want to get some quick pilot trials done, do not bother to do them here; they do them in Europe. They are reliable investigators and good people [there] who do not have the regulations [to deal with]. We are trying very hard to get some experimental drugs because there is a demand from the patients for this. The drug companies do not want to bother. But still, at the Clinical Center, you can do it. I miss that. I would say that I miss that more than anything. Grant writing is not bad; it focuses you; it subjects you to the criticism of your peers. You learn from the process. And there was a lot of work we did intramurally that was really a waste. I have notebooks full of good material, but even more notebooks full of complete trash that will never be published. You have to be more focused in your thinking on the outside

Rodrigues: That is one of the problems that we have had, trying to describe all the different efforts and look through the literature. People were quick to publish things that had panned out and that showed positive results. But there were so many efforts that ended up with either negative or no results.

Gelmann: Of course. [Dr.] Linus Pauling spent a long time trying to ascertain protein as the genetic material. Is anyone dinging him for it now? You expect it in a career; you are going to publish something that is going to turn out to be dead wrong. You cannot be embarrassed about it. You make an honest effort; you make an observation. Either your results are reproduced by other scientists and the field moves on, or your observation just dies there in the literature. Heaven knows, Bob Gallo has had more than his share of that. He has taken a tremendous public beating. I am not on his payroll, but I recognize that he went through tremendous personal tribulation and that, in the end, he came out with something.

Rodrigues: Was there anyone from the FDA involved in AIDS research?

Gelmann: [Dr. Gerald] Gerry Quinnan was involved at the FDA on the Bethesda campus. He had a large group with several individuals who were working on different viruses. Some of them were co-authors on papers. He was doing a lot of research at one time. I do not know whether he is active any more.

Harden: Was it in the early period that the FDA did work on AIDS?

Gelmann: Yes. Quinnan was working with someone and they were trying to culture Kaposi's cells and he was talking about the cooperation of EBV [Epstein Barr Virus] and CMV [Cytomegalovirus] in causing Kaposi's sarcoma.

Harden: This brings me to another question. I have been doing some research on Koch's postulates. It was all stimulated by [Dr.] Peter Duesberg's challenge to HIV. He does not believe that HTLV-I causes cancer, either. What did it take to convince you that this retrovirus was indeed the cause of AIDS?

Gelmann: I think the fact that it can kill cells in vitro and the serology were the two convincing things to me. It was interesting to see that it was a lentivirus, and similar to other lentiviruses which did these things in animals.

Harden: You have done some work on Burkitt's lymphoma, and I think that Duesberg was saying that someone had recently found that Burkitt's lymphoma has no lentivirus involved.

Gelmann: In my studies of Burkitt's lymphoma, there has been the involvement of an oncogene called myc. I think what Peter was quoting was that it was thought that in every case of Burkitt's lymphoma, if you looked at the detailed molecular pathology of the myc oncogene, you could find that one of the two copies had a mutation. About the time I was studying a particular case of Burkitt's lymphoma, which happened to be in an AIDS patient, but that was irrelevant to the issue. There was a published paper in which it looked like there was a myc gene which looked normal. But then, when we looked at our gene, we found an interesting change that was in a region that was unexpected. We went back and looked at that one and found it did have mutations. So, to my knowledge today, there is still no normal myc gene in a Burkitt's lymphoma or there is no Burkitt's lymphoma without an abnormal myc gene in it. I think that in terms of myc and Burkitt's, it is the second best example of an oncogene being very closely associated with a specific cancer. The best example is abl -oncogene in chronic myelogenous leukemia, where Koch's postulates have almost been satisfied.

Harden: Thank you, Dr. Gelmann.

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