The study of retroviruses has had a profound impact by unveiling an unusual form of viral replication: the multiplication of RNA viruses via a proviral DNA, for which Jan Svoboda provided the experimental model over forty years ago. In 1970 Temin, Mizutani and Baltimore discovered that this group of viruses contains a unique enzyme catalysing the synthesis of a DNA copy of the viral RNA: reverse transcriptase (RT). The discovery of RT has itself had an enormous impact on molecular biology in general, but also stimulated many premature claims of its detection in human disease. Claims by Gallo's laboratory that the cytoplasm of human leukaemia cells contained RT proved to be unfounded, as did his report in collaboration with Weiss that myeloid leukaemia contained HL23 virus, this organism proving not to be human but a laboratory contaminant of three monkey viruses. Conclusive demonstration of a retroviral involvement in human leukaemia was first provided in 1981 by Hinuma and his associates, showing that adult T-cell leukaemia (ATL), a rare form of leukaemia endemic to south-west Japan, is caused by a new retrovirus (ATLV). Other publications in December 1980 and through 1981 claimed the discovery of a new human T-cell leukaemia virus involved in mycosis fungoides (MF) and Sézary's syndrome (SS). This virus was termed HTLV by Gallo. The nucleotide sequence of ATLV is strongly conserved, that of my 1983 isolate from a black British ATL patient being practically identical with the Japanese virus isolates.
After AIDS was recognised in 1981 by Gottlieb and coworkers as a new human disease, several papers were published by Gallo and his associates during 1983–4, invoking the oncovirus responsible for adult T-cell leukaemia as the cause of AIDS. In 1983 the French scientist Barré-Sinoussi and her colleagues succeeded in isolating a new agent in the disease, a lentivirus, which they named LAV. The French immunologist Klatzmann and his colleagues discovered that LAV killed CD4+ T-cells, furnishing an explanation for the pathogenesis of AIDS and providing a mechanism for how AIDS developed. For some time Gallo continued to suggest leukaemia virus involvement, claiming that his independent isolate of the AIDS virus, termed HTLV-III, was closely related to HTLV-I (the Japanese ATLV). Although this created considerable confusion among researchers for a period, the relationship was eventually disproved. Unlike ATLV, whose nucleic acid sequence is very stable, the AIDS virus (now termed HIV by international agreement) is extraordinarily unstable, the sequences of independent HIV isolates being quite unique: this made it possible to establish conclusively that both HTLV-III and another independent isolate CBL-1, from Weiss' laboratory, were actually LAV isolates from the French laboratory.
It has been shown by Hayami and his associates that only African primates are infected with similar lentiviruses to HIV which explains why AIDS started in Africa. Further research has clarified the origin of HIV-1 to be a chimpanzee lentivirus and HIV-2 to be the sooty mangabey lentivirus, which began to spread in humans perhaps no more than fifty years ago. The infection has spread rapidly, primarily through sexual intercourse, but also by transmission through blood and its products as well as contaminated needles and syringes. Sexual intercourse has now spread the virus around the World; and there are probably some 70 million infected. 90% of those infected with HIV develop the deadly disease of AIDS within ten years of infection: the death toll from the disease has been enormous. By contrast, HTLV-1 has been infecting man in isolated areas probably for hundreds of years; but it has not spread widely. HTLV causes leukaemia in only less than 1% of those infected.
The prime mode of transmission of HTLV-1 is between mother and neonate; infections can be reduced by stopping breast-feeding by infected mothers. The isolation of HIV enabled screening tests to be developed for contaminated blood. However, due to the peculiar biology of HIV infection, unfortunately all efforts to develop an effective vaccine have so far failed.