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Researchers May Have Found Way HIV Becomes AIDS

November 9, 1994

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ The discovery of a protein that may trigger the AIDS virus into developing into the fatal disease may lead to new treatments, researchers said.

But a leading AIDS expert warned against giving false hope to people who are HIV-positive.

HIV-infected people can be healthy and live for years before the virus begins reproducing and attacks the body’s immune system.

University of Pennsylvania scientists now say they have found a protein in a gene, unique to HIV carriers, that appears to tell infected cells when to start reproducing the virus. Their research was published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

″We understand a new pathway the virus uses,″ said study chief David Weiner, an assistant professor of pathology and medicine at Penn. ″We now have an opportunity to design drugs to inhibit it.″

Dr. Nava Sarver, one of the chief scientists in the AIDS division of the National Institutes of Health cautioned that the study, while interesting, is very preliminary. Usually, studies such as Weiner’s that are conducted in the laboratory do not hold up when tested in bodies, she said.

″Many other questions need to be asked to confirm these findings,″ Sarver said. ″I feel it is not right to give hope to patients who are desperate for any type of therapy.″

But Dr. Alfred Saah, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said, ″It’s a hopeful sign and I think it’s worthy of pursuit and if it pans out, it will be quite an advance.″

The study centered on one of nine known HIV genes, ″vpr.″ The gene produces a protein, known by the capitalized abbreviation ″Vpr,″ that apparently must be present before infected cells can produce new, infected viral particles that in turn infect other cells, Weiner said.

Scientists need to know how the virus multiplies before they can design drugs to inhibit it, Weiner said.

Weiner’s research team found in laboratory tests that the stage of infected people’s disease corresponds with the level of ″Vpr″ protein in their blood.

People in the early stages of infection had low levels of the protein; those with fully developed AIDS had high levels.

By exposing cells to the protein in the laboratory, the researchers turned latent infection to active infection.

Weiner’s team also found that it could block the production of new virus by exposing the cells to ″Vpr″ antibodies. Weiner said his team is now trying to develop a vaccine that would create ″Vpr″ antibodies.

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