LOS ANGELES -- Under pressure from African-American doctors, federal officials say they plan to take a fresh look at an experimental anti-AIDS drug that the physicians contend has been ignored for years because of racism.
The National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases agreed yesterday to design clinical trials to study low-dose oral alpha interferon, said Dr. Jack Killen, deputy director of the NIA division of AIDS.
Previously, the World Health Organization and U.S. National Institutes of Health reported finding no proof that the drug is effective against acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
But Dr. Killen said federal officials now believe the drug deserves closer study because of evidence presented Monday by African-American doctors during a meeting in Washington. The doctors claim the drug can cause weight gain, reduce fatigue and slow the effects of the AIDS virus.
"Several people have a lot of clinical experience and believe they have seen people improve," Dr. Killen said. "We need to untangle whether or not we are looking at a real phenomenon."
Dr. Killen said he also believes the drug should be studied to determine whether it is safe for people who already are using it, even though the drug lacks government approval as an AIDS treatment.
Oral alpha interferon has gained support among African-Americans because it was first tested on a large scale in Kenya, doctors say. A Kenyan researcher had claimed the drug reversed the effects of AIDS, although no one has been able to duplicate his results.
Monday's meeting was sponsored by the National Institutes and the National Medical Association, the nation's largest organization of African-American doctors.
"This is a big issue in the African-American community," Dr. Killen said. "It was very important for us that the recommendations that got made [Monday] and the recommendations that came out of them have credibility in the African-American community."
Dr. Killen denied allegations of racism and said the drug was not tested earlier because there was no proof it could work.
"There has not been enough data to justify doing it," he said.
Dr. Wilbert Jordan of the Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles presented findings from his studies on the drug that found it can slow the progression of AIDS.
Dr. Jordan maintained that avoidance of the drug was racially motivated.
"We have finally got the National Institutes of Health to look at the drug -- reluctantly, but they are going to do it. I think it is unfortunate they have had so much pressure to do it," he said.
Joseph Cummins, a Texas veterinarian, says he holds patents for the use of oral alpha interferon, and he believes that skepticism of new methods -- not racism -- has prevented the drug from being studied.