New findings dim the hopes of drug therapy's effectiveness against AIDS

July 22, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Three months into a national trial of a combination of three drugs that experts have called the best hope for treating AIDS, new laboratory findings have cast serious doubt on the validity of the scientific premise underlying the studies.

In addition, the principal researcher in the original studies that led to the trial said yesterday that his team had found a flaw in them. The trial is being conducted on 400 volunteers at medical centers across the country and is being paid for by the federal government.

In February, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston said scientists there and at Harvard Medical School had found what "may be the Achilles heel of HIV," the virus that causes AIDS. The findings were made by a Harvard medical student, Yung-Kang Chow, working in the laboratory of Dr. Martin S. Hirsch, the principal investigator for the study.

Widespread publicity led a flood of applicants to seek to participate in the trial, and the National Institutes of Health doubled the size to 400 participants from the 200 that had been planned before the findings were reported in Nature, the British science journal.

But researchers from two other teams in England and the United States reported at a recent meeting in the Netherlands and in papers submitted to Nature that they could not confirm part of the Harvard team's findings.

At an AIDS conference in Berlin last month, Mr. Chow expressed reservations about another part of the paper. In an interview yesterday, Dr. Hirsch reported that Mr. Chow had found that the virus developed resistance to the combination drugs after 20 to 30 generations of in-vitro testing. In the original report they said // that no resistance emerged after 10 generations.

Mr. Chow said earlier in the week that he was under orders not to talk to reporters.

Dr. Hirsch said that the new reports had prompted his team to repeat its original studies, which led to the finding of an error in one part of the paper. The error was a misidentification of a part of a mutant form of HIV used in the experiments, Dr. Hirsch said. Dr. Hirsch said his Harvard team planned to send a letter today to Nature reporting its error.

"We are embarrassed by the unrecognized error," Dr. Hirsch said.

Dr. Deborah J. Cotton, an AIDS researcher at the Beth Israel Hospital, a Harvard teaching hospital in Boston, said the hope that the combination drug trial "will represent a major leap in therapy is now dimmed."

Dr. Cotton made her comments in AIDS Clinical Care, a publication of the Massachusetts Medical Society. But she declined to elaborate further in an interview, because she said she planned to begin working with Dr. Hirsch's team on Sept. 1.

Nevertheless, Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in separate interviews yesterday that the flawed laboratory study was not a reason to stop the combination drug trials.

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