AIDS researchers pursue 2 promising treatments

November 11, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Two scientists working at the far edge of AIDS research have discovered two promising treatment approaches to the deadly global epidemic, and although both have shown success only in laboratory experiments, each researcher independently sees the other's as innovative and exciting.

One of the scientists, Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, is a molecular biologist who gained fame at the National Cancer Institute as a pioneer member of the team that first cloned the genes for the AIDS virus. The other, Dr. Dennis R. Burton, is an immunologist who studies the human body's ability to create an endless array of infection-fighting antibodies.

Ms. Wong-Staal reported yesterday that she has engineered a segment of genetic material inside the AIDS virus to act as a "molecular scissors" that can cleave the entire gene of the virus and disable it so it can no longer reproduce and destroy the cells of the human immune system it infects.

The AIDS virus itself is known to be particularly dangerous and resistant to killing because it mutates constantly.

But the tiny segment of the viral gene that Ms. Wong-Staal uses in her test-tube experiments at the University of California at San Diego is part of the genetic material inside the virus that remains unchanged, she said. As a result, she contends, it should prove to be a reliable tool for destroying the ability of the entire genetic machinery within the AIDS virus to produce and kill its target cells of the human immune system.

Although her newly discovered weapon may be tried in AIDS patients within a year or two, "we're still at a very early stage in the research," Ms. Wong-Staal said.

Her colleague in the new research is Dr. Arnold Hempel of Northern Illinois University. The system is already being developed for human use by Biotechnology Research & Development Corp.

Both Ms. Wong-Staal and Mr. Burton described the preliminary results from their research at a seminar in La Jolla this week by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the University of California at San Diego.

Within a year or two, Dr. Burton said, he hopes to be testing the effectiveness of his human monoclonal antibodies against AIDS viruses in cases where infected pregnant mothers are known to transmit the virus to their unborn infants.

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