AIDS researcher pursued

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With time running out, Maryland's political and academic leaders are offering public money and research space in what Gov. Parris N. Glendening calls a "full-court press" to lure world-famous AIDS researcher Dr. Robert C. Gallo to Baltimore.

Dr. Gallo, who discovered two leukemia viruses and is credited with crucial findings in the biology of AIDS, has made numerous visits to Baltimore in recent months -- meeting with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on Monday.

He has dined with Mr. Glendening, toured research facilities at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and conferred with academic leaders, including Dr. David J. Ramsay, president of UMAB; Dr. Donald Wilson, dean of its medical school; and Dr. Rita R. Colwell, president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

Dr. Gallo, 58, who runs the tumor cell biology laboratory at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, would be given a joint appointment on the faculties of the university's Biotechnology Institute and medical school. He would establish a Center for Human Virology in the six-story biotechnology research center on West Lombard Street that the university plans to open in the fall.

The governor and others involved in the recruitment effort declined to disclose how much money they are offering to help Dr. Gallo and an entourage of approximately 50 scientists establish the institute.

But The Sun has learned that the governor has offered $9 million from the state's "sunny day" fund and that Mr. Schmoke has offered $3 million from an unspecified source.

The $12 million would cover the first three years of costs -- including salaries, equipment and supplies.

This week, the governor said that a competitor will probably offer more money but that Maryland hopes to prevail on other fronts.

"All I can say is that, within the limits of reasonableness of dollars, we are doing everything we can," Mr. Glendening said. "There is the prospect of one or more states simply putting more dollars on the table. We have to be cognizant of that. . . . But there may be a point where we have to say: What is the rough balance of what we should be spending?"

Others in the hunt

The other institutions in the hunt are Virginia Commonwealth University and its affiliated biotechnology park in Richmond; the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston; and the Allegheny Group, a foundation that owns the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a chain of private hospitals.

The governor and others are touting the region's intellectual climate, which encompasses not only the University of Maryland campuses but also the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the National Institutes of Health.

The area also has one of the nation's highest rates of new HIV infection. To Dr. Gallo, that could mean a lasting need for innovative AIDS therapies and the research grants that large caseloads attract.

Dr. Gallo plans to leave the National Cancer Institute, probably after he reaches his 30th anniversary and qualifies for his pension in July. But he said he will choose his destination soon.

"I absolutely cannot go past the month of April," Dr. Gallo said.

Several other eminent scientists would accompany Dr. Gallo. They include Dr. Robert Redfield, who heads the cancer research center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Dr. William Blattner, senior epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health; and Dr. Joseph L. Bryant, chief of the animal care unit at the National Institute of Dental Research.

Dr. Gallo refused to say whether he is favoring a particular suitor, but he had positive things to say about Baltimore.

"This is a very important city in the history of American medicine," he said. "It has a lot of medical research, medical facilities and a city that stares squarely into the storm of AIDS. We could make an impact, and could be helped and helpful."

Also, he said the city's location would make it possible for the scientific team "to hit the ground running" because neither Dr. Gallo, who lives in Bethesda, nor his colleagues would have to relocate.

"Clearly, these are enormous positives," he said.

Money could be swing factor

Dr. Gallo said he will weigh many factors besides money -- including academic environment, lifestyle and the AIDS caseload. But money, which means the ability to hire talented researchers and develop the most sophisticated laboratory, could be a swing factor if "all other things are equal."

"If place 'A' comes up with three times the amount of money as place 'B,' there's no way I can go to place 'B,' " Dr. Gallo said. "But if the two are reasonably close, then you have to go home and think about what you are going to do."

He said his research priorities will be AIDS and certain viral cancers. His laboratory is also studying a neurological disease that shares many of the features of multiple sclerosis. He said he hopes those studies will unlock clues to treating MS.

Push began in October

Efforts to bring Dr. Gallo to Baltimore began in October when Dr. Edmund Tramont, director of the university's Medical Biotechnology Center, asked his old friend to consider anchoring the center's new building.

The six-story structure is a once-abandoned Hutzler's department store warehouse, recycled into 70 modern laboratories.

Dr. Gallo is seen as a potential spark for the area's biotechnology industry, which has had trouble competing with the "biotech" meccas of Boston, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and the San Francisco-Palo Alto area.

Wherever he goes, he is expected to attract private investors who would establish a private company that would market products spawned in laboratories run by Dr. Gallo and colleagues.

Another plum would be an annual scientific conference known as the "Gallo lab meeting," which attracts several hundred research scientists.

Talk of recruiting Dr. Gallo initially caused some faculty members to worry that the high-profile scientist would drain research money from them, the medical school dean acknowledged.

Some, Dr. Wilson said, "wondered whether this would impact on their ability to survive. 'How is that going to impact on me? Will that take money out of my pocket?' The answer, of course, is no."

Dr. Gallo, although renowned for his science, has been surrounded by controversy that key players in the recruitment drive have sought to play down. In the early 1980s, both Dr. Gallo and French researcher Dr. Luc Montagnier claimed to have discovered the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and the two shared credit for the pivotal finding that led to a blood test that detects infection.

French researcher's charge

Later, Dr. Montagnier charged that Dr. Gallo did not acknowledge using viral samples from the French laboratory to win a U.S. patent for the AIDS blood test. At first, Dr. Gallo denied that he used the French strain; later, he acknowledged that his viral cultures were accidentally contaminated with the Pasteur Institute's strain.

In January, the office of U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell leaked a draft report that was critical of Dr. Gallo, but the Michigan Democrat later disavowed it. He said he could not vouch for its "accuracy or authenticity."

"It is clear from what I have been told by the NIH officials," the Biotechnology Institute's Dr. Colwell said, "that he has been cleared of the charges, and there are no pending investigations and no planned investigations."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°