Discovery of the first human retroviruses

1980

Challenge

In the 1970s, researchers knew retroviruses as the cause of some cancers in various animal species, but they had not been clearly defined as causative agents of any human diseases, including certain types of human cancers.

Advance

The discovery of T-cell growth factor—also known as interleukin-2—allowed researchers, including Robert Gallo, M.D., at the IRP to culture human T cells in vitro. Gallo’s team cultured two different T-cell lines from a patient with a cutaneous T-cell lymphoma and discovered that both cell lines continuously produced retrovirus particles. It was the first time that retroviruses had been observed in human cells.

Impact

This initial report of human retroviruses would lead the way towards eventual discovery and characterization of various cancer-causing viruses, including the HTLV-III retrovirus, later referred to as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and identified as the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Publications

Poiesz BJ, Ruscetti FW, Gazdar AF, Bunn PA, Minna JD, Gallo RC. (1980). Detection and isolation of type C retrovirus particles from fresh and cultured lymphocytes of a patient with cutaneous T-cell lymphomaProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 77(12):7415-7419.