May 11, 2009 05:47 PM | 3
As the world frets about the swine flu virus, the scientists credited with discovering HIV urged governments and international organizations to redouble their commitment to the battle against AIDS.
Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, whose roles in identifying the viral cause of AIDS have been disputed over the years, came together Friday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their discovery with a global call to action.
Acknowledging the public’s preoccupation with the unfolding H1N1 pandemic, Gallo said, "Don't forget we have a known problem…a known deadly epidemic." Some 175,000 people die from AIDS every month—about the same number of lives claimed by the 2004 Asian tsunami, he told the audience gathered at the National Press Club in Washington.
Gallo, who directs the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, said that creating an HIV vaccine should be top on the research agenda. But the challenges are significant and efforts so far have failed.
One important reason: the virus incorporates itself into a person's chromosomes a day or two after infection. "I believe we have to block [the virus] right at the gate"—in other words, develop a vaccine that stimulates the body to produce antibodies that prevent HIV from ever entering cells, Gallo explained to ScientificAmerican.com in an interview following the news conference.
HIV's ability to hide out in the host cell's genetic material, a phenomenon called "latent infection," is also a major barrier to finding a cure, according to virologist Michael Emerman of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. But developing drugs that could either stimulate the immune system to attack these latently infected cells, or prompt the cells to begin churning out viruses so the immune system spots and attacks them, might help get around this problem, he notes.
For his part, Montagnier, president of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, said, "We are not dead in AIDS research." The virus continues spreading and we still have no vaccine or cure, he added.
Gallo's and Montagnier's joint appearance comes less than a year after Montagnier and his colleague Françoise Barré-Sinoussi from the Pasteur Institute in Paris received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of HIV. Many saw the Nobel Assembly's omission of Gallo as an outright snub, as he is commonly considered the co-discoverer of HIV alongside Montagnier. The French team was the first to isolate the virus, but it was Gallo who established the link between HIV and AIDS.
Gallo and Montagnier seem to have put the past aside. "I was surprised; I was disappointed" about the Nobel, Gallo said over the phone, as he and Montagnier drove to lunch together after the news conference. But, he said, "We are friends and we are colleagues that discuss things with some regularity." Chiming in from the background, Montagnier said that he was not in the position to challenge the Nobel committee's position.
The duo has published several articles explaining their complimentary contributions to HIV research – including a 1988 Scientific American piece in which they wrote, "contributions from our laboratories in roughly equal proportions-had demonstrated that the cause of AIDS is a new human retrovirus."
For more on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, see our In-Depth Report
Image of Montagnier (left) and Gallo (right), courtesy of The University of Maryland School of Medicine
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