In the early 1980s, a deadly and mysterious virus began killing thousands of people across the world by destroying their immune systems and leaving them susceptible to life-threatening ailments. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began using the term “AIDS” (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) to describe the virus, medical researchers and professionals were still largely in the dark regarding the underlying cause of the illness.
However, this all changed in 1984, when National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Robert Gallo played a key role in discovering that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was the cause of AIDS. Gallo went on to help pioneer an HIV blood test that allowed medical professionals to screen for AIDS and protect blood transfusion patients.
In honor of HIV/AIDS Awareness Month, we invite you to learn more about Gallo’s incredible discoveries and historic career.
Robert Gallo was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on March 23, 1937. From an early age, he took an interest in science. He was inspired by his uncle, who was a zoologist, and his father, who worked as a metallurgist and had a large technical library. However, the most profound experience that led Gallo toward a medical career was when his sister Judy was diagnosed with leukemia at just 5 years old.
Though Judy was one of the first patients to receive antimetabolite chemotherapy and reach remission through drug therapy, she passed away in March 1949. While the experience was a traumatic one for Gallo and his family, being around the doctors caring for his sister had a lasting impact on him.
“When my sister had leukemia and when I went up once near the end of her life to visit, I saw research doctors and it was planted in my mind that they were trying to do something beyond what you could do today,” Gallo said in a video published by the Institute of Human Virology. “If you just do what’s today, there will be no tomorrow.”
A Career in Medicine
After Gallo graduated from high school, he attended Providence College and majored in biology. His college years solidified his desire to pursue a career in medicine, and after college he enrolled at the Thomas Jefferson University of Medicine in Philadelphia. It was here that Gallo met famous medical researcher Allan Erslev, who both introduced him to the National Institutes of Health and taught him vital laboratory skills and strategies for approaching research questions.
In 1965, Gallo began working at the National Cancer Institute and started exploring the possibility that viruses had the potential to cause cancer. After years of hard work, in 1981 he and his team identified the first human retrovirus, called the “human T-cell leukemia virus,” that was later linked to forms of leukemia and other neurological diseases.
Helping to Solve the Mystery Behind AIDS
As AIDS began attracting worldwide attention, Gallo began to believe that the illness could be caused by a virus. In 1982, thanks to his expertise, he was tasked with leading an AIDS task force within the National Cancer Institute.
Just one year later, he successfully identified the virus causing AIDS and named it “HTLV-III.” He and his research partner, Samuel Broder, published their findings in 1984. In 1986, the virus was renamed “HIV” and Gallo was awarded the Lasker Award for his discovery.
Today, Gallo works for the Institute of Human Virology (which he co-founded), a first-of-its-kind virology center that combines the disciplines of research, patient care and prevention programs in a concerted effort to speed the pace of medical breakthroughs.
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