Is HIV to Gallo as kuru is to Gajdusek?
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/07/04
The first discovered pathogenic “slow virus” thought to infect human beings was the agent responsible for the invariably fatal kuru disease that affected members of the Fore tribe in New Guinea. The discovery was credited to Carleton Gajdusek, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1976 for uncovering thereby “new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases”.
I had long known that this “discovery” had been vitiated implicitly in 1996 when Stanley Prusiner was awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering that kuru and similar brain diseases (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease of humans, mad-cow disease of cattle, scrapie of sheep) are not caused by a virus at all, slow or fast, but by misshapen proteins (prions).
Since “HIV” had been recognized as a “slow virus” on the precedent of the supposed kuru agent, after the award to Prusiner one might have expected HIV/AIDS theory to be revised. That was not the case, of course.
Only quite recently did I come to read anything detailed about Gajdusek and his kuru work, and I learned some quite significant details. For example: Despite a couple of decades of examining brains and other tissues of victims of kuru, neither Gajdusek nor anyone else had ever actually detected the agent that supposedly caused the disease. The Nobel Prize was awarded on the basis of inferences. Since kuru appeared to be confined within a single tribe, and indeed largely to relatives, behavior and lifestyle were examined for some plausible mechanism, and there appeared to be a possible association — though not 100% by any means — with cannibalism: many or most of the kuru victims might well have eaten parts of dead kuru victims.
A continuing conundrum here, in my view — conundrum for prion theory as much as for “slow virus” theory — is the postulate of transmission via cannibalism. Digestion, after all, is a typically effective means for breaking down proteins and other large organic molecules. For a long time, however, investigators of kuru ruled out toxicological or infectious causes, because hereditary transmission appeared most likely for something like kuru that appeared to run in families.
I learned about Gajdusek and kuru from Warren Anderson, The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). I found the book interesting and believable, in part because Anderson successfully refrains from taking sides, including about the charges of child molestation that blighted Gajdusek’s public image in his later years. Potential readers should, however, be aware that some passages in the book — thankfully few — are shrouded in sociologese that serves no perceivable purpose, e.g. “Gajdusek struggled to separate Fore and their goods, to render their persons partible and ownable, to claim the right to circulate bits of their bodies. . . . [Others] competed . . . to control the flow of goods, to influence how persons and things were made visible and mobilized from the Fore region. . . . fetishizing Fore brains and blood, concealing or denying the social relations of these objects, then exchanging them as gifts with other scientists . . . . to make persons visible as things, and then to transact these things , still endowed with a Fore personal aura, in the agonistic exchange regimes of mid-twentieth-century biomedical science” (p. 133, emphasis in original).
There’s more to the relation between kuru and AIDS than that both are or were supposed to be caused by a “slow virus” that defied detection, let alone isolation, as bona fide virions. There’s also the hereditary factor. Gallo’s HTLV-I and -II are also “transmitted within families and . . . stay within families for generations” (Gallo, Virus Hunting, p. 114); “HIV” is, of course, Gallo’s HTLV-III, and Gallo has never retracted his claim that “HIV” is an authentic member of the HTLV family, and that the HTLVs are “the only known specific co-factors for AIDS” (p. 248, emphasis in original). It’s perhaps pertinent, too, that Gajdusek claimed to have found genetically distinct variants of HTLV-I among another New Guinea tribe, variants that appeared to be benign unlike Gallo’s Japanese HTLV-I that “sometimes” causes adult T-cell lymphoma (Anderson, p. 219). Admittedly, “HIV” tests do not show transmission only or primarily within families, but they do demonstrate an indubitable genetic component that is race-associated (The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, especially chapters 5-7).
My guess is that prions will not remain the last word on the cause(s) of spongiform encephalopathies like kuru, scrapie, etc. My conviction is that “HIV” will not long remain the accepted cause of “AIDS”; recent discussions point increasingly to human endogenous retroviruses as explanations for what has so far been interpreted as the presence of “HIV”, “HIV antibodies”, and “HIV” RNA or DNA (Etienne de Harven, “Questioning the existence of HIV”, available as video, audio, abstract, and PowerPoint slides at the website of the 2009 Rethinking AIDS Conference.
Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, so it’s said, and that surely applies in medical science as much as elsewhere.