A new test that detects early immune problems in children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has been developed by University of Maryland Medical Center researchers.
Dr. John P. Johnson, who headed the Pediatric AIDS program re
search team, said the test is so promising that perhaps in the next year and a half it could be used routinely to start early AZT therapy in children not showing symptoms of illness.
Currently children with HIV are given AZT, until recently the only approved anti-AIDS drug. The drug is administered only after they havedeveloped some kind of illness -- such as pneumonia, fail to grow and thrive, contract any of a variety of serious infections, or show a low level of so-called T-helper cells.
According to Johnson, experts in pediatric AIDS care have been concerned for some time that offering AZT therapy only after some illness arises may not be soon enough.
"The timing of AZT is very important," Johnson, who heads the pediatric immunology division at the UM Medical Center, said yesterdayin a telephone interview from Atlanta.
"The benefits of AZT only last for one or two years and then the drug is no longer effective. We want to use it when the child needs it the most. If we wait too long to start the treatment, we are risking immune system and neurological deterioration that might have been prevented with AZT."
The new test looks at the ability of T-helper cells to divide and grow in response to specific stimuli in the laboratory, much as they would in the human body.
"If the test finds the child's cells are dividing and growing, that means the child is still pretty healthy, but if they are not, then this may be the time to start early therapy," he said.
The test, called a Lymphoproliferative Assay, was studied in 80 children, ages 6 months to 6 years old over a period of 18 months. The study showed that the children whose T-helper cells did not respondwere more likely to develop symptoms of AIDS. Results of the study are being published in tomorrow's edition of AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses.
Johnson said more study is needed. Larger clinical trials will be conducted through the AIDS Clinical Trials group to further assess this test and its usefulness. Several hundred children will be studied over the next year at different sites across the country, he said.