Accessibility links

Breaking News

AIDS Researcher Robert Gallo Making a Difference


Dr. Robert Gallo is considered among the best scientists in the United States. He is the bio-medical researcher who discovered the first retrovirus in humans, which causes a rare form of leukemia. But he is best known for his work in identifying HIV as the virus that causes AIDS. His virology findings have led to a new line of research on viruses that cause several forms of cancer. Zulima Palacio has more in this latest edition of our series, Making a Difference.

Robert Gallo starts his days with a long, 45 minute commute. While driving, he talks on the phone with one of his assistants and gives her a long list of instructions. He is still working hard nearly 30 years after his 1974 breakthrough discovery of the first retrovirus in humans that causes leukemia.

That work later led to the discovery of Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He also developed the HIV blood test.

Ten years ago, Dr. Gallo and two other scientists founded the Institute of Human Virology in the eastern city of Baltimore, Maryland, which is dedicated to the study and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Gallo has been honored with more than 80 medical awards and 30 honorary degrees. However, when asked about what is usually cited as his most important achievement, the discovery of the AIDS virus is not in his list. "Emotionally, the most important thing I got satisfaction from was the discovery of the first human retrovirus, the leukemia virus HTLV-1, because it was one of the first viruses shown to be the cause of cancer," he explains.

Dr. Gallo's sister died of leukemia when she was a child, and he says he embarked on a lifetime of research after six painful months as a medical doctor, treating children with leukemia. "Watching a lot of children, while taking care of them, die was a horrific experience," says Gallo. "Certainly, it led me not to want to see patients ever again, and I never did."

Scientists argued for years over who first isolated the HIV virus in the early 1980s. Eventually, Dr. Gallo and Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris were declared co-discoverers. When looking at a photograph of Dr. Montagnier, Robert Gallo highlighted their cooperation in fighting HIV-AIDS. "This is a picture of Montagnier - we are in Cameroon in Africa," noted Gallo. "Montagnier has a foundation, and I am on his board. He is also a member of this institute."

At home, Dr. Gallo is surrounded by reminders of his research and awards. His wife Mary Jane recalls a full life, of travel and meeting world leaders. But mostly, she recalls their life together. "We have known each other for 50 years - amazing!" she comments.

After a busy day at work, the scientist, 71, ends a day on the tennis court with friend and colleague Joe Bryant, who jokes with Dr. Gallo about his poor backhand and his competitive spirit.

When asked how Dr. Gallo will be remembered, those who know him say they will recall his forceful personality and dogged determination.