Chapter 4

 

What a Decade!

In January 1991, I joined a lab at Thomas Jefferson University in the department of medicine, division of infectious diseases to work on HIV pathogenesis and vaccine. This was one of the most exciting times of my life.  My boss was trained under a Nobel Laureate and was very goal oriented.  I was in my 40s now and reach the age of prophethood![1] I have become much calmer and articulate.  I was never trained much in experimental biology or molecular immunology in a formal fashion. I had taken numerous workshops and learned many methods in molecular biology by visiting other colleague’s laboratories during the past decades or so. But, at this new lab I got exposed to the state of the art molecular methods, some of the methods yet to be invented.  I utilized my in situ PCR method extensively and reached a global notoriety.  One year after arriving at TJU we published a ground breaking finding that forever changed the way scientists looked at HIV infection.  Until 1992, the leading investigators believed that HIV only infects one in 10,000 white blood cells.  This was the paradigm that was set instone my Robert Gallo and was the focus of controversy that how a virus that infects such a small number of cells and can cause immunodeficiency?  Peter Duesberg, a renowned retrovorologist challenged the paradigm by entirely rejecting the notion (and fact) that HIV-1 caused AIDS.  I was well trained by Harold Lischner in clinical cellular immunology and was well aware that in patients who are born with T cell deficiency –called SCID or bubble babies) have no real immune defense.  The paradigm that was established by the US National Cancer Institute director was predominantly accepted but in my view was false.  Therefore, while at St. Christopher, I discussed this with Dr. Lischner and we initiated an IRB to draw blood from the HIV infected patient and I began to apply in situ PCR method that I have invented a year earlier to determine the actual percentage of cells infected with HIV.  However, my problem was that we did not have the means to carry out the experiment the way it should be.  We had no thermocyclers that can accommodate glass slides to perform the experiment.  Therefore, I initiated collaboration with MJ Research as soon as I arrived at TJU and the owners of the company and the marketing director visited my lab and we developed an in situ PCR machine.  We began to collect peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) specimens from HIV infected and uninfected individuals.  The infectious diseases physicians began to send me the specimens in a blinded fashion and within a year I was able to determine that a very large percentage of the PBMCs were infected with HIV.  This was published in the May 1992 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.  Overnight the paradigm was broken.  Few days later I received two important calls – one from Luc Montagnier, the Director of the Pasteur institute who invited me to come to Paris and teach his faculty how to carry out the test and an angry call from the person who’s paradigm has been broken.  That was a four letter word call with lots of inappropriate words.

I was the lead and corresponding author so I received invitations from around the globe.  As an old ascetic I knew that I may not be well prepared for such a fame and I need to keep the eyes on the prize- to find a vaccine for HIV and not get too distracted.  I almost always travelled with my wife so I do not get distracted from other carnal desires.  My boss decided to apply for a patent on the technique, even though it was not his invention. From my previous negative experiences I realized that jealousy can ruin my relationship with my boss and I should let him be significant owner of the patent (even though the article was published by me as a single author while I was at UMDNJ).

I wanted to know how to defeat the virus but it was important to know what kinds of other cell types it infects so we published our findings extensively and figured it out the actual reach of the virus, especially in the brain.  Series of those articles still remain important part of the HIV neuroAIDS.

During the time period where my lab was working on HIV pathogenesis there was another fascinating group of scientists that my boss supervised that was working on defeating HIV by a mechanism called intracellular immunization.  Idea was that one can genetically engineer an antibody that expresses inside the cells (the antibodies are extracellular and not evolved to work inside the cells) that would be directed against a key HIV protein and when quell the virus from inside.  This idea was originally forwarded by David Baltimore, a Nobel Laureate, when he was at Whitehead Institute.  The lab was headed by a scientist who came and trained at the Chinese Military University.  He has a half a dozen scientists from the same institute and their lab was an electronic key code and no one can enter without the card.  I was surprised by this but I trusted my boss and did not question the logic or the action.  What subsequently happened was a total disaster and is one of the most disappointing times of my life.  Because of the legal non-disclosure agreement I am unable to discuss what actually happened but the curious minds can glean through the events from the publically available documents[2].

Since I was one of the coauthores I was now tainted by the scientific community even though I acted honorably and saved numerous lives. I still maintain that if poisonous gene therapy had entered into the AIDS patients it could have harmed them. I temporarily started to work at a nearby HBCU until the three year long legal battles were over.  These three years provided me with an ample opportunity to reflect on the matters.  I was learning lessons of life that I never have been paying much attention to previously.  The power of propaganda and falsehood makes truth a lie and a lie a truth.  The money and deception that scientists employ to gain a tiny advantage in the public arena is amazing.

In reality, I was finished as a scientist only because I had assisted the FBI and the Justice Department in finding the truth!  The scientific community perceived me as a trouble maker.

I figured that now the new path ought to be to teach extensively and find a place where I can quietly work on my goals to find a cure for HIV/AIDS and perhaps other diseases.  I had applied at numerous places and with my educational, publication and academic backgrounds I was offered several positions including as chair at some top universities.  But, the real goal was to “keep the eyes on the prize”.  So, I accepted an offer from a small HBCU as a professor of biology.  I decided on this because I believe that I can make a difference in the lives of young underrepresented minority students and carry out my research quietly and perhaps under the radar.  But the main reason was that I trusted the President of the University, Henry N. Tisdale.  I learned all could to know about this caption of the University and I believed that he was an up right man and he was honest and trust worthy. Soon after my arrived my luck changed and I received tens of millions of dollars in grant funding from almost all the federal agencies. However, the one thing that I did not expect was the difficulty in recruiting qualified scientists who can carry out complex research work.  In the big city like Philadelphia it was so easy but in a small city it is almost impossible.

[1] No man ever became a prophet until he was 40, including Moses, Muhammed, and Noaha.

[2] http://articles.philly.com/1998-04-29/news/25764611_1_gene-therapy-human-virology-research