Scientists from different walks brainstorm on AIDS Restoring immune system is research goal

November 08, 1993|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Staff Writer

Therapy ideas as unusual as primate-to-human bone marrow transplants were discussed in Baltimore this weekend at an international gathering of scientists and AIDS activists focusing on the repair of disease-weakened immune systems.

"The question is, 'What can we do later on, as well as early on?' " said a noted conference participant, Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine.

The third conference to discuss strategies for treating the immune systems of people with late-stage acquired immune deficiency syndrome was known as "Immune Restoration Think Tank 3." It drew together researchers from a wide array of disciplines at the Harbor Court Hotel to share ideas in an informal setting, away from the glare of the media, organizers said.

The conference was sponsored by Project Inform, a San Francisco community-based research organization that seeks to unite researchers, practicing physicians and patients in an effort to inform people of promising treatments and strategies for battling the AIDS epidemic.

Martin Delaney, founding director of Project Inform, said many researchers are working on ways to attack the HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but the question of how to restore the immune system after it is damaged has not received as much attention. Several conference participants said the low-key atmosphere allowed researchers from different disciplines to cross-fertilize ideas and helped them identify promising areas of research.

"It's very nice to be able to discuss this with our colleagues in a collegial atmosphere," Dr. Salk said. "Here, everybody lets their hair down."

Dr. John Dwyer, of the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, Australia, said that one option is to study how to "harvest" white ++ blood cells from people in the early stages of human immunodeficiency virus infection, who are still relatively well.

Those cells would be cultured in the lab and multiplied and given back later, when the patients are sicker, in the hope that the immune system would be strengthened.

"That's a direct borrowing from the thinking of the cancer doctors," Dr. Dwyer said.

One of the fun things about the conference, Dr. Dwyer said, was the way participants combined ideas. For example, he said, he may combine research on "harvesting" techniques with research being done by Dr. Salk and others on the development of vaccines against HIV.

It may be possible, Dr. Dwyer said, to strengthen the immune system with vaccines before re-introducing a patient's white blood cells.

Mr. Delaney said that researchers will also investigate the possibility of transplanting bone marrow into humans from primates. Many primate species, he said, exhibit some degree of natural immunity to HIV infection.

Other promising avenues of research discussed include further study of gene therapy, of immunization techniques, of thymus-gland transplant techniques, and of chemicals called cytokines, which transmit messages in the immune system.

"We don't know which of these strategies is going to be the best," Mr. Delaney said.

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