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Delay fails to weaken Dr. Gallo's optimism AIDS researcher sets up office as work on labs stalls


Their labs are still a construction site, but Dr. Robert Gallo and another key AIDS researcher have arrived in Baltimore to launch an institute that is part of Maryland's strategy to become a leader in the life sciences.

Lured to the University of Maryland by a high-powered group that included the governor, Dr. Gallo set up a temporary office Monday just a block away on West Lombard Street from an old warehouse that is being transformed into the sparkling home of 70 laboratories.

In the first year, Dr. Gallo and his colleagues hope to recruit 30 to 50 scientists, technicians and support staff. But they envision a group of about 300 within a few years.

Renovations were stalled for several weeks when inspectors discovered low-level lead contamination in a stairwell. All told, construction will cost an estimated $38 million.

"I was originally disappointed that the building was delayed but I'm certainly happy with the total university environment," Dr. Gallo said. "It's more attractive as I explore it. I feel very good about my decision."

Three scientists who are leaving government service -- Dr. Gallo, Dr. William Blattner and Dr. Robert Redfield -- will head a Center on Human Virology focusing on new therapies for AIDS and cancers that have viral origins.

The virology center will occupy about half of the six-story building, which was built in 1914 and served for many years as a warehouse for Hutzler's department stores. The remainder will be used by other scientists involved in biomedical research.

Last May, when Dr. Gallo signed a letter of intent to establish the new virology center, he said he expected the building to be finished in the fall. Now, it is scheduled to be ready by January.

Dr. Redfield, a vaccine researcher at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is expected to come to Baltimore as the center's opening nears. Dr. Blattner, a well-known epidemiologist from the National Cancer Institute, preceded Dr. Gallo here by more than a month.

Dr. Blattner moved his family to a new home in Cockeysville and began scouting possible sources of grants to support research and ensure a revenue stream in years to come.

But the center is getting a healthy start on funding -- more than $19 million from Maryland sources to support equipment and salaries over its first three years. It is part of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, one of the most visible elements in the state's strategy to spur economic development by promoting life sciences research.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has promised $9 million from a "sunny day" fund that is designed to lure business and other economic development projects to Maryland. That commitment still requires the approval of a legislative committee, which is expected.

The city has secured $3 million, drawing funds from bond issues that raise $5.2 million for the promotion of biotechnology facilities over six years. Meanwhile, the UM Biotechnology Institute has promised $3 million for equipment, and the University of Maryland at Baltimore, $4 million to support collaborative research projects with the medical school.

An agreement spelling out the financial commitments has been under negotiation all summer and is expected to be completed soon.

Ultimately, researchers are expected to win grants from outside sources such as the federal government and foundations. Although they will continue to draw support from university sources, their dependence on state money is expected to shrink.

State and university leaders are hoping that the center will catapult the University of Maryland and its affiliated hospital into the forefront of AIDS research and spawn new biotechnology companies that will help revitalize a flat Maryland economy.

Although it has maintained a respected AIDS research program and provides much of the care for patients in West Baltimore, the University of Maryland medical complex is generally not considered in the top tier of AIDS programs nationally.

Dr. Gallo, who formally ended a 30-year career with the National Cancer Institute last Sunday, said he is spending his time getting acquainted with city and faculty leaders and preparing lectures for students at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins medical schools.

Next week, he begins a three-week trip to attend scientific meetings and deliver lectures in Poland, Singapore and Japan.

He continues to keep an office at the NCI campus in Bethesda, and plans to shuttle to and from Baltimore until the biomedical research building is completed.

Dr. Gallo said he intends to keep his home in Bethesda but also purchase a condominium in Baltimore -- possibly in Federal Hill or along the Inner Harbor.

The three scientists -- Dr. Gallo, Dr. Redfield and Dr. Blattner -- all received tenured faculty positions with the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Although the Center for Human Virology will focus much of its attention on AIDS, researchers also plan to investigate cancers and other diseases that have been linked to viruses. Among his interests, Dr. Gallo said he intends to pursue a theory that multiple sclerosis has viral origins.

An early pioneer in AIDS research, he also discovered two leukemia viruses while working at the cancer institute. The first one, called HTLV-1, was the first virus linked to a human cancer.

"I predict this will become a center for the treatment of diseases caused by chronic viral diseases and most of them will turn out to be cancer," said Dr. Edmund Tramont, director of the University's Medical Biotechnology Center and the person who initially approached the three scientists about coming to Baltimore.

Dr. Tramont, who has direct authority over the new building, said scientists will also study a wasting syndrome that often afflicts people who have received transplanted organs. The condition is possibly triggered by a virus that takes hold when patients take drugs to suppress the immune system and thereby ward off organ rejection.

For his part, Dr. Blattner said he plans to continue his studies into biological "set points" that seem to predict how long a person will survive HIV after the initial infection.

His prior work in Trinidad has shown that infected people who produce large quantities of the so-called p24 protein succumb faster to AIDS, he said. High levels of this protein seem to correspond to a higher "viral load" -- the amount of virus a person carries.

"It's clear that if we could have a therapy or a vaccine that would change the set point to a lower viral load, we would improve survival considerably," he said.

Dr. Blattner said he looks forward to shifting his focus froTrinidad to Baltimore. Such studies can be done only in $l communities with high HIV caseloads -- and the Baltimore-Washington area, he said, has one of the highest infection rates in the United States.

To assist in studies like this one, Dr. Blatter has hired Dr. Farley Cleghorn, a medical epidemiologist and native of Trinidad who had joined him several years ago at the cancer institute.

Much of the center's work will require the use of laboratory animals. Scientists will rely heavily on transgenic animals, in this case mice that are genetically manipulated to produce human proteins. Transgenics have become useful for studying disease processes and the effects of therapies before they are tried on humans.

The animal care unit will be the responsibility of Dr. Joseph Bryant, who plans to leave a similar position with the National Institute of Dental Research.

Dr. Bryant, an African-American, said he wants to forge ties with the community, giving the center a social as well as scientific function. In particular, he hopes to encourage minority youngsters to consider careers in biotechnology -- showing them paths that could eventually lead to jobs at the virology institute.

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