Office of NIH History
In Their Own Words: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS
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Harden: Was the OD involved in AIDS activities at the time of this workshop or was this coming after that?

Wyatt: I'm not sure. Bob Gordon's name didn't come up in planning this workshop. Dick Krause from NIAID was there and was very much involved; the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] representatives were there; and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] was there. [Dr. Richard] Dick Adamson represented the National Cancer Institute, but in looking over this particular program, I don't see the OD specifically involved. The first I became aware of OD involvement was when I was going to the OD staff meetings, and Bob Gordon would come back and report on meetings that had occurred at the Humphrey Building. I think it picked up speed from that point. Initially, I guess, Dr. Ed Brandt was still there at the time and very much a part of the activity. When Dr. James Mason came in as Acting Assistant Secretary for Health, he took a very active role in chairing those meetings. I might have some notes from some of those meetings although you probably have extensive files from the Executive Secretariat.

Harden: Don't count on that.

Wyatt: I used to come back and write up notes for Dr. Wyngaarden from those meetings so he could see specifically what was going on. Then we would have an NIH follow-up meeting soon after that. Again, this was late 1984 or early 1985, when the representatives from the different institutes would gather in his office to be brought up-to-date on the latest findings.

Harden: Anything like that I suspect we're going to look at it and maybe copy. What do you think?

Rodrigues: Yes. We've been able to uncover quite a few files, but one of the things that we've discovered is that some of the people like Bob Gordon transmitted a certain number of their files to OD files. OD files picked up a certain number of files, but there were a lot of things that he put down on paper that didn't necessarily get filed away. So as far as Bob's papers go, we haven't been able to find them all. A lot of that material seems to be gone.

Wyatt: Sure. All of this antedates the NIH AIDS Executive Committee that was established later. That came about shortly thereafter, and then it all became much more highly organized, with an Associate Director for AIDS Research and the AIDS Executive Committee at the NIH. There were regular meetings, but I didn't get involved in those.

Harden: We're concentrating, at the moment on the pre-HIV period because it's manageable at this point and it's most interesting how one discovers a new disease. When the formal structures get established, you are already through that period. This is why what you're telling us is so helpful and interesting.

Wyatt: There are some interesting anecdotes. I was recalling one time that Ken Sell called us in. He was very excited; he'd been hearing about an organism called Ehrlichia canis. Dr. Charles Kallick had been working on it at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, and there were others involved as well. E. canis caused a kind of immune suppression in dogs, and Ken was excited that maybe this was an analogue of the agent that we were looking for in humans. A small group of us went to Chicago one day to talk to these people. Dr. Harlan Caldwell was brought in from the NIAID Rocky Mountain Labs, because of his expertise on Chlamydia. It obviously didn't turn out to be the AIDS agent, but we were really, to use Dr. Sabin's words, “casting a wide net”, trying to not overlook any leads. I think that was another reason for the early interest in the parvoviruses, like canine parvovirus, for example. There's a disease that didn't exist, and then very rapidly it became a major devastating disease of dogs, for which a vaccine was rapidly prepared to deal with it. But, it's an example of a disease where no disease existed and then over a short period of time a major life-threatening disease emerged. Also, take the example of the minute virus of mice. There was a mutation that caused the virus to go from a non-pathogenic virus to a pathogenic virus. So, there were a lot of possible leads, and I guess that's one of the reasons we had five different talks on paroviruses at the 1983 workshop. When we organized it, we simply didn't know what was causing AIDS.

Harden: So the emphasis by the time of this workshop was clearly on a viral agent as opposed to amyl nitrites or some of the other theories?

Wyatt: Amyl nitrites were discussed. I can see that just looking through the summary that I prepared seven years ago. It's not edited but we talked about–well, here, “Other factors might also play a role; however, its susceptibility to such an agent (a putative AIDS agent), including an immature immune system, immunosuppression by sperm, immunosuppression by other infectious agents, such as malaria, hepatitis virus or CMV, or ‘antigen overload'–whatever that meant at the time. So, we were clearly looking for not only agents but also co-factors that might be involved. “The CDC investigators were looking for serologic evidence of infection with known agents.” This was the talk that was given. “It was non-revealing,” it says here. Although there were increases in antibody to hepatitis A and to Treponema pallidum; they were significantly higher in AIDS cases than in controls. They also talked about the studies at that meeting in which they had been trying to isolate potential agents.

Rodrigues: Yes. I think in the interview that Ken provided, he talks about how amyl nitrite, affecting vascular permeability, could perhaps render a non-pathogenic agent, given a different situation, allow for a different pathogenic pathway. So, I could see why it was a viable theory to keep alive until you had something better going.

Wyatt: It's an interesting chapter. And it hasn't been that many years ago–when you stop and think about it. A lot has happened since.

Harden: Thank you very much, Dr. Wyatt.

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