AIDS Meeting Suggests Basic Research Gaps

Article excerpt

AIDS meeting suggests basic research gaps

The more than 3,100 scientific presentations at the Fourth International Conference on AIDS meeting in Stockholm last week had a most curious effect. Individually, each spoke of a small advance in the science of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes the disease. But taken together, they suggested some potentially serious flaws in the direction of AIDS research.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in vaccine development. Over the past five years, scientists have expended tremendous effort to decipher HIV's entire genetic code. One major goal is to use this information, together with genetic engineering, to develop a vaccine. Half a dozen genetically engineered AIDS vaccines already have emerged from laboratories, and two have triggered some immune response in human beings. But it's far too early to say whether that response in any way provides a defense against the living AIDS virus.

Daniel Zagury from the University of Paris in France, the first person to inject himself with an AIDS vaccine, reported in Stockholm that he plans to expand his test later this year. He expects to inject the vaccine into hundreds or thousands of people in Africa -- exactly where or what group of people, he refuses to say.

He also says he plans to give his vaccine to pregnant women infected with HIV to see whether they will pass immunity along to their unborn children. The second vaccine tested in human beings, developed by the National Institutes of Health and MicroGeneSys in West Haven, Conn., has fairly minor side effects, reported H. Clifford Lane from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

But it will take studies with hundreds, perhaps thousands of volunteers followed over many years to determine whether these vaccines are effective. So it's crucial for AIDS vaccines to be based on the soundest theories. One index of a theory's strength is success in animal studies. Yet, experimental genetically engineered AIDS vaccines have failed to protect lab animals from infection. As a result, some scientists are having second thoughts about this high-tech strategy to AIDS-vaccine research. Indeed, although HIV was isolated five years ago, only now are scientists conducting the classic vaccine experiments: killing the virus, then injecting it into chimpanzees to see if the killed virus acts as a vaccine.

"I think we've done what we call in the United States 'home-run-strategy' research so far," says Jorg Eichberg, a vaccine researcher from the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Tex. "Now [with these chimpanzee studies], I think we're going back to the basic research where we try to put the mosaics together one by one."

AIDS has attracted disproportionate attention from molecular biologists, who study the virus from the standpoint of its genetic instructions, says David Baltimore from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Comparatively less effort has gone into the basic virology: studyisng the AIDS virus as a virus.

The molecular approach to vaccines was seductive because if a genetically engineered vaccine works, it is most likely safe. Most scientists have avoided the killed AIDS virus because viruses might survive and cause disease instead of preventing it. …