Political Viruses: Retroviruses During the War on Cancer
During the late 1960s it appeared to many that researchers were on the verge of revealing a human cancer virus and developing a vaccine against cancer. The promoting research into RNA tumor viruses, or retroviruses, provided common political ground between a community of molecular biologists and advocates of the creation of an aggressive, “moonshot,” cancer research program. For the molecular biologists that worked on retroviruses, however, this idea of managed research threatened their sense of independence and creativity. They fiercely contested the allocation of generous funding to C-type RNA virus research by officials at the National Cancer Institute.
The status of basic questions of RNA tumor virology thus became entangled with heated debates over the organizational form of patronage in biomedical research. The “failure” to find a human cancer virus left lasting legacies. In the process of their opposition, molecular biologists articulated attitudes towards government intervention in science that echo to this day. Moreover, in addition to their importance to AIDS research, retroviruses played a vital role in the discovery of oncogenes.