New AIDS treatments explored

The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO Less than a month after an international AIDS conference in Japan reported little progress in drug therapy, the federal government has launched a $25 million program for alternative treatments.

More money and applications are slated to be approved next year, officials of the National Institutes of Health said Thursday. They acknowledged that the future of drug and vaccine therapies appears gloomy in the battle against AIDS.

The treatments getting the money aim to strengthen the immune system and genetically attack HIV, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"This effort is crucial because currently available anti-HIV drugs only partially and temporarily suppress replication of the virus, and their use is hampered by toxicity and drug resistance," he said.

More than 14 million people worldwide are already infected by HIV, and the World Health Organization has projected that the disease could kill 121 million people by the year 2020.

The NIH money will be divided among six institutions: The New England Medical Center in Boston, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Stanford University and the University of California at San Diego.

All must begin human trials by at least the third year of the four-year grants.

The Stanford team is taking infection-fighting cells out of healthy people, treating them and inserting them into a sibling with AIDS.

Along the same line, the New England researchers seek to boost the number of the body's so-called killer T cells, the AIDS fighters the body initially produces when infected.

So far, the new grants represent only a small part of the NIAID's $558 million budget. But the agency says it is committed to expanding the initiative.

Experts studying how to halt the AIDS epidemic say this week in the journal Science that a powerful vaccine alone will not conquer AIDS and could even make the epidemic worse, because it might create a false sense of safety and cause people to ignore risks. They emphasize that it will take safe sex and other changes in behavior to stop the virus.

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