Ray of hope in AIDS battle Vulnerable virus?: Social worker's observation pointed scientists toward flaws in virus.

November 27, 1995

AFTER ALL the disappointments in the battle against AIDS, it is significant that the latest ray of hope stems from the keen observation and steely persistence of an Australian social worker.

In 1989, Jennifer Learmont, who works at the Sydney Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service, noticed that two people had received blood from a donor who carried HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Yet both recipients, as well as the donor, still enjoyed good health. Ms. Learmont began to search out other recipients of the tainted blood -- a task that involved checking thousands of records of donors and recipients.

Eventually, she found seven, two of whom had died from causes unrelated to HIV or AIDS. But the other five, as well as the donor, are still alive and remain free of AIDS symptoms. Convinced that their continued good health could hold keys to the mysteries of this deadly virus, Ms. Learmont tried to persuade scientists to take a look at this unusual cluster of people. To her credit, she persisted long enough to puncture their initial skepticism. As a result, AIDS research now has a promising new avenue to pursue.

When they examined the strain of HIV these people share, scientists discovered that it had mutated from the standard HIV so that two of its genes are lacking small segments of material. These tiny defects appear to be enough to prevent the virus from inflicting much damage, and they are pointing scientists toward a particular gene in the AIDS virus that offers a new target for potential vaccines.

A vaccine and possible cures are still far away. But it is good to know that scientists battling the virus in the laboratory have alert sentries like Jennifer Learmont, whose vigilance can open new doors.

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