Over the next four decades, Duesberg would throw himself into his passion for science, traveling thousands of miles from his homeland. Even so, he still peppers his conversations, no matter the topic, with World War II metaphors and references to Hitler and his henchmen—and to the “good Germans” who did as the government demanded. It is hard to understand him at times, not just because of his sharp German accent and odd phrasings but because he makes mental leaps that can leave a listener exhausted. In rapid-fire sequence he jumps from scientific minutiae to grand political comparisons (viruses, bacteria, oncogenes, even researchers who study these entities can be transformed into Goebbels or “good Germans”), and then he might toss in an entirely new idea before returning to his original topic—all within seconds.
“We’re supposed to be ‘good soldiers,’ following orders from higher-ups.”–Peter Duesberg
In 1964 Duesberg arrived at Berkeley as a postdoctoral fellow hoping to unlock the secrets of cancer. He recently walked along the long, easy pathways of the university recalling the excitement of his early cancer research and how he had joined in the hunt for retroviruses. At the time, most researchers thought virtually all cancers were caused by viruses. Retroviruses were considered the likely culprits since they could cause cells to go into overdrive.By inserting their genetic material into the host’s genome, they triggered cell proliferation and sometimes tumor formation. In 1911 Peyton Rous demonstrated that one retrovirus, now called Rous sarcoma virus (RSV), could produce tumors when injected into healthy chickens. In 1970 Duesberg, along with a colleague, Peter Vogt, isolated the RSV gene responsible for causing those tumors —the SRC gene. This was the first cancer gene, or oncogene, ever identified—a celebrated breakthrough that truly put the young German on the scientific map. Following up on this, Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop discovered the homologous SRC gene in normal human cells in 1976, for which they later received the Nobel Prize (pdf). It was thought that the human, or “cellular,” SRC gene, after undergoing a mutation, would trigger cancer. This launched a new era in cancer research and a mad dash to identify cancer genes, the little time bombs said to exist on otherwise normal strands of DNA, which one researcher dubbed “the enemy within.”
Rather than bask in the glory of having been first to isolate the oncogene, Duesberg began to doubt that the enemy really was within. He started to suspect that oncogenes do not cause cancer. To prove that they do, Duesberg says, researchers should be able to create cancer in cell cultures by inserting human cancer genes into human cells. But after two decades, millions of dollars of public and private funding, and the best efforts of cancer researchers, himself included, Duesberg says that no combination of genes has ever produced cancer in tissue cultures.
This is a point strongly repudiated by a number of well-respected cancer researchers, such as Robert Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Weinberg, who is also a professor of biology at MIT, says he has created cancer cells in culture by adding oncogenes—as, he stresses, have hundreds of others. “It is not a point of contest,” Weinberg says. “It is as debatable as whether day follows night or 3 follows 2”—that is, not debatable at all. But Duesberg insists Weinberg’s experiments were not correctly interpreted; the chromosomal defects seen in those experiments, he now says, were the cause, not the result, of the cancer.
Despite Duesberg’s groundbreaking work, his accolades, and his federal grants (which continued through the mid-1980s), once he began to question the widely accepted role of oncogenes as the cause of cancer, his colleagues began to give him the cold shoulder. The evidence of their disdain was embarrassingly public. Around 1984, when a student of his pointed out that Duesberg had not attended a West Coast meeting of scientists working on tumor viruses, he suddenly realized that he was no longer being invited to the informal meetings. For 12 years Duesberg had regularly met with his colleagues, including Peter Vogt and Nobel laureates Varmus and Bishop, among others. “We had vigorous debates,” Duesberg says. “But I thought that was good science. You challenge ideas. I thought it was all in good spirit.” Other researchers didn’t see it that way. Duesberg’s constant natter about problems with oncogenes as the cause of cancer seemed to them a distraction, even an obstruction. So they simply stopped inviting him to meetings. They failed to respond to his letters and calls. They no longer welcomed him to stay in their homes during out-of-town conferences, as they had in the past.
Weinberg, who first met Duesberg in the 1970s, calls him a “contrarian” with a “corrosive and acidic wit.” He feels that it was these traits, more so than science, that later guided Duesberg’s decision to challenge the theory of HIV. “He is like a man who is shipwrecked on an island, struggles onto the beach, looks around, and says: ‘Is there a government here? If so, I’m against it.’”
In 1984, while Duesberg was researching cellular and viral oncogenes, he heard Margaret Heckler, who was Secretary of Health and Human Services, announce that his then friend Robert Gallo had discovered that HIV was the cause of the mysterious new plague known as AIDS. Duesberg was instantly suspicious. He knew that HIV is a retrovirus—the subject of his own heralded research—and that retroviruses don’t kill the host cells they infect. If anything, they make them proliferate. That is the opposite of what happens with AIDS, where special immune cells known as CD4 cells are knocked off. The more Duesberg looked for answers, the more he came to believe that the original hypothesis of top AIDS researchers was actually correct: The disease was—at least in the United States—brought on by drug use and other immune-suppressing causes.
“He was someone to stay away from because he was such a loose cannon who didn’t think before he spoke.”–Max Essex
Inside his large, bustling laboratory in Berkeley’s famous Stanley Hall, Duesberg plotted out graphs of the 1960s and ’70s epidemic of drug abuse, including busts for heroin, cocaine, and other drugs. Then he superimposed them on other graphs illustrating the rise of AIDS. Allowing for a time separation of a decade or less, he found a close correlation between the two groups of graphs. Although there was nothing new about drug abuse, it appeared there was something new about the intensity of use and the types of drugs used, particularly among gay men.
Duesberg likens the problem to smoking: If you smoke a few cigarettes, even over a decade, your chance of lung cancer might remain fairly low, but smoke several packs a day over several decades and your risk soars. Research by numerous investigators showed that most of the gay men who first developed AIDS had a long history of drug abuse that often included “poppers,” a nitrite drug that treats heart disease. Poppers were widely used not only to get high but also to relax the anal muscles to make sexual intercourse easier. According to several research accounts, a number of the men were having multiple daily sexual encounters that could easily translate into hundreds of partners over a lifetime. Since nitrites are powerful carcinogens, Duesberg thought this explained why gay men frequently developed the cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma but other risk groups, such as hemophiliacs and heterosexual drug abusers, rarely did. The eventual decline in Kaposi’s, he now says, was due to a decline in the use of poppers—a position bolstered by a study that found that mice briefly exposed to poppers developed signs of reduced immune function.
In 1986, after more than two years of research, Duesberg was so convinced that the HIV theory of AIDS was dead wrong that he spent nine months writing his paper on HIV (pdf) for Cancer Research.
The reaction was explosive. Both Duesberg and his hypothesis were roundly condemned by the overwhelming majority of AIDS researchers, many of whom had been his friends. Max Essex, a professor of infectious diseases at Harvard University and one of the first to suspect that HIV was the cause of AIDS, had met Duesberg in the mid-1970s; he says Duesberg was always fun and that “everyone wanted to go for drinks with him.” Today Essex dismisses Duesberg as a crank whose sarcasm has grown meaner over time. “Everyone,” he says of the many who abandoned Duesberg, “thought he was someone to stay away from because he was such a loose cannon who didn’t think before he spoke.”
Duesberg says his critics have failed to provide satisfactory answers to perplexing contradictions about AIDS. For example, he asks, why does Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer of the blood vessels, occur almost exclusively in gay males and not in heterosexual drug users? Why is AIDS rarely transmitted by heterosexual contact in Europe but is said to spread rapidly among heterosexuals in Africa? If AIDS is caused by a virus, why has it been impossible for researchers to develop a vaccine after 20 years and millions of dollars spent? Finally, could it be, as Duesberg suggests, that antiretroviral (ARV) drugs used to attack HIV actually do more harm than good, contrary to the common assumption that they have dramatically reduced AIDS deaths?