Man who discovered HIV focused on finding a functional cure

Dr. Gallo speaks on anniversary of HIV discovery

BALTIMORE - "I don't have to be afraid of getting it anymore."

Steve wasn't really surprised to learn he was HIV positive. (His last name has been withheld

He admits he didn't always make good choices.     

"It'll be threes years in July," Steve said. "I've been medicated pretty much since I found out, and I'm doing fine.  It hasn't really changed my life at all."

It's been 30 years exactly as of Wednesday since Dr. Robert Gallo and his team of researchers published a series of papers on the discovery of HIV. He says the treatment for it has come along way for the virus that was once considered a certain-death sentence. 

"In the history of medicine, in the inception of a new disease.  There was never such progress. Ever," Gallo said. "What we learned from epidemiologists in 1981, 1982 that risk factors were having promiscuous sex, were being born of certain mothers that didn't know it was a virus or being exposed to blood.

"In 1984 we were able to say we've got enough data.  This is the cause.  We have a blood test.  We can protect the blood supply.  We can follow the epidemic for the first time."

His office at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland Medical Center is filled with photos, snapshots of the people he's met and the lives his research has touched.

Pope John Paul II, Sen. Joe Lieberman, former President Ronald Regan and Gov. Paris Glendenning are just some of the heavy hitters whose path he's crossed over the years.

In his early years Gallo worked at the National Cancer Institute. His passion was to find a cure for cancer, which was inspired by the death of his 5-year-old sister Judith from childhood leukemia.

Gallo discovered the retrovirus, HTLV1 in his cancer research. That discovery led him to the HIV virus.

"The definition of a retrovirus, what makes it unique is that once you are infected -- it's forever," Gallo said. "I never would have anticipated the magnitude of deaths in Africa."

30 years later, more than 30 million people have died from the disease.

"I'm actually really thankful that I got it now rather than 20 years ago when I'd have been on a giant cocktail of pills or possibly dead in six months," Steve said.

Steve is one of the lucky ones.  He takes one pill a day and sees a doctor on a regular basis.

"The majority of people still in the American population are not adequately treated, let alone in the rest of the world," Gallo said.

READ | Linking patients with care the growing focus of HIV/AIDS prevention

So the work is far from over.  Researchers in Gallo's lab may never find a cure.  They have a vaccine however headed toward its first phase of clinical trials later this year.

What used to be a death sentence is now a chronic disease. Gallo however is focused on finding a functional cure.

"You won't cure every last viral particle in a person but you may never again need therapy, that is what the field is worked now to try and accomplish," Gallo said.

Steve still has a lot he wants to accomplish.  He’s in school learning to become a massage therapist.   While he still hopes for a cure, he accepts the cards he's been dealt.

"Make your own choices but be aware of the consequences, 'cause this is one of those things that’s currently forever," Steve said. "I wouldn't wish it on anybody. To anybody with it, I'm sorry."

 

 

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