Vantage Point: A prize tarnished

'Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States....The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.' - Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, as quoted by the Associated Press, Sept. 30

The discussion around the water cooler the morning of Oct. 6 was less about who got the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine than about who didn't.

In selecting Luc Montagnier and his associate, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, to share half the prize, the wise men and women of the Nobel committee had a message to deliver. It was not so much a celebration of the accomplishments of the two French scientists at the Pasteur Institute as a slap in the face for Robert Gallo, the director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland. The committee effectively dismissed his role in the saga of scientific discovery around AIDS.

When Gallo announced in 1984 that he had discovered the virus now called HIV, it quickly emerged that the virus he possessed was identical to one provided to him by Montagnier's lab in Paris, a strain that the French scientist had identified and called LAV. In the face of a brewing and ugly scientific dispute, one that involved patents and all the money to be made in licensing blood tests and products related to HIV, the French and U.S. governments negotiated a truce. As part of that agreement, both men were listed as 'co-discoverers' of the virus that caused AIDS. Despite the joint statement that Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier published in Nature in 1987 describing the chronology of the discovery of HIV, the controversy did not end. Indeed, for the next decade or so, Gallo continued to be hounded by investigative reporters, which then led to government committees deciding to look into the issue, with misconduct being found - and then the findings reversed on appeal.

I don't know Robert Gallo, but I have followed this saga and admired his resilience, his willingness to fight back and counter every thrust so as to make sure that he is exonerated, which he is... but perhaps not in Stockholm.

The Nobel committee's deliberate oversight suggests that they have done more than carefully weigh the scientific contribution. They have been influenced by personalities and politics - that is, perhaps, unavoidable, as it is humans who decide on this issue, not impartial computers who weigh the scientific contributions.

Still, I am picturing my 11-year-old son, who has a liking for science, visiting a Web site that lists the Nobel winners and tells the stories of the scientific quests that led to this honor. I picture him being drawn to the romance and passion of science, just as I was at his age, but I am chagrined to think that when he reads the list he will learn of the downright scandalous awards (to Moniz in 1949 for the lobotomy) and some of the most inspiring ones (to Banting and Macleod for the discovery of insulin); yet he won't read about Gallo, whose contributions merit a place on that roster.

It is interesting that the Nobel continues to eclipse other prizes in its fame and its prestige. The Lasker Prize has been called 'America's Nobel' and incredibly, Robert Gallo won it twice - a fantastic achievement that surely trumps one Nobel Prize.

For the record, here is what Gallo did achieve: He first described retroviruses, which is the class of viruses to which HIV belongs, and he linked a retrovirus to a rare leukemia- - this alone is deserving of the Nobel. (In an interview, he considers this his most significant scientific achievement). Then, his lab discovered a 'T cell growth factor' that turned out to be pivotal in sustaining the growth of T cells in culture, cells that are the target of HIV. And finally, when AIDS came along, his prior experience with retroviruses put him in good stead, and his lab did identify and characterize the virus we now call HIV, even if the virus he wound up studying came from a sample sent to him by Luc Montagnier.

Any one of these achievements, which are well- chronicled by Gallo in his book Virus Hunting - a not accidental title that echoes Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters, a book that drew many a youngster to science - would be a huge contribution to the advance of science. Therefore, personality aside, not to give Gallo the Nobel Prize when rewarding other breakthroughs in AIDS winds up diminishing the prize's luster, in my opinion.

Perhaps it is time to counter this Euro-centric tendency, dare I say a bias. The way to do it would be for the U.S. (recession be damned) to institute a prize that eclipses the Nobel, at least in monetary value and eventually in prestige. Awarding such a prize would not be free of controversy, but I think we could work hard to make it fair and credible, to make it objective, to be certain at the very least we wouldn't deliberately snub one of the very best because we didn't like his style.


Forbes.com published the original version of this story Oct. 6. Verghese is professor of medicine at Stanford.



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