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Researchers Preparing AIDS Experiment That May Fly On Shuttle

July 31, 1988

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ Astronauts on the first post-Challenger shuttle flight may grow crystals of a protein taken from the AIDS virus in an experiment researchers hope will lead to drugs to fight the fatal disease.

The protein, reverse transcriptase, is an enzyme the AIDS virus uses to replicate its genetic material in order to reproduce and spread through the body, said Dr. Charles Bugg, a University of Alabama-Birmingham researcher.

″AIDS would never infect human cells without using this enzyme,″ said Bugg, coordinator for NASA of protein experiments that are to be conducted aboard Discovery. The shuttle is scheduled to fly later this year.

Researchers want to grow the crystals of reverse transcriptase to decipher its structure. Crystals grown in space are not distorted by gravity while they form.

Scientists hope to learn how the AIDS virus takes over the genetic machinery inside a cell and use that knowledge to develop a drug to conquer AIDS.

Dr. Tom Krenitsky at Burroughs Wellcome in Research Triangle Park, N.C., developed the experiment. NASA is making sure it meets safety guidelines.

″We want to make sure there is no danger of infection to the crew with just this protein,″ Bugg said.

Jim Ball, a NASA spokesman in Washington, said the review would take several weeks.

Krenitsky predicted that if the shuttle is launched in September and the experiment works well, researchers could have a model of the protein’s structure by the end of the year. But he cautioned it could take 10 years to make a new AIDS drug.

″It’s still very much an experimental program, but one that we feel is full of promise,″ he said.

Discovery is in the middle of a simulated countdown leading up to a crucial test-firing of its main engines to test modifications. The countdown was interrupted Friday because of problems with ground fueling equipment, and the firing was postponed from Monday until Thursday.

NASA officials so far have found no evidence to suggest the experiment could infect any of the astronauts with AIDS. Krenitsky said Thursday that it even if the protein somehow got into an astronaut’s bloodstream it would not infect him.

″First of all, you only have one of 20 to 30 proteins the virus needs to be a viable organism,″ Krenitsky said. ″It’s such a small piece, it’s not workable.″

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