UM institute to aid China in its fight to halt AIDS

Pact to further expand city center's global reach

August 29, 2005|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Already a force in the fight against AIDS in Africa, the University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology is expanding its reach to Asia with an agreement to help China keep its emerging epidemic from exploding into one of the world's largest.

Under the agreement, to be signed today at its annual conference in Baltimore, the institute will assist China in finding appropriate drug treatments and efficient ways of getting them to patients.

The pact also calls for Baltimore doctors to train Chinese physicians in the care of people with AIDS and for China to send young researchers to work in the institute's laboratories on West Lombard Street.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about efforts by U.S. scientists to help China control its AIDS epidemic incorrectly identified the affiliation of the Institute of Human Virology, headed by Dr. Robert C. Gallo. The institute, which is in Baltimore, is part of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, not the University of Maryland.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Scientists from both countries will join forces in finding a long-sought AIDS vaccine as well as new treatments that could include combinations of Western drugs and traditional Chinese medicines.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful for the long-term peace, prosperity and health if both parts of the globe came together to solve this problem?" said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the institute's director and co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS.

Gallo said the center also plans to sign a commercial agreement next month with the Chinese government and CK Life Sciences, a Hong Kong pharmaceutical company. The parties hope to develop marketable therapies and share in royalties.

Today's agreement comes as Chinese health authorities increasingly reach out for expertise in grappling with a disease that arrived more than a decade later than it did in the United States, Africa and some other parts of the world.

China documented its first case of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the mid-1980s, but the epidemic took off in the mid-1990s - fueled then by the sale of contaminated blood products. More recently, intravenous drug use, prostitution and general sexual activity have abetted the epidemic.

The World Health Organization estimates that fewer than eight out of every 10,000 Chinese are infected with the AIDS virus - a tiny fraction of the rates seen in some African countries. Chinese authorities estimate that 840,000 people there are infected with HIV.

But experts fear that the disease could overwhelm China if the country doesn't develop effective strategies to contain it soon. Some predict that the world's most populous nation - with more than 1.25 billion people - could also have the world's largest AIDS caseload within the next decade.

"Control and prevention is not just a short battle, it's a long war," said Dr. Yiming Shao, chief expert with China's National Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention. "With scientific support we can sustain the war against AIDS."

Gallo and Dr. Wang Yu, director of China's Center for Disease Control, are scheduled to sign the pact this morning in a ceremony at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront.

Founded by Gallo in 1996, the institute is the latest of several U.S. research institutions to join China's fight against AIDS. Others include the Johns Hopkins University, University of North Carolina and Harvard University.

"They are looking for top, world-class advice from different sources," said Joel Rehnstrom, who heads China programs for the United Nations AIDS effort.

UNC's program focuses primarily on public health measures to control the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Hopkins is testing a medication designed to get addicts off heroin and, consequently, to keep them from spreading the human immunodeficiency virus through the sharing of dirty needles.

Today's pact may be the first between an entire institution and Chinese health authorities, Shao said. Most of the others "are scientist to scientist in different areas."

Critics say the Chinese government came late to the battle, refusing to publicly acknowledge the epidemic until just a few years ago.

But Dr. Myron Cohen, a UNC researcher who works with the Chinese government on AIDS issues, rejected that view. He noted that U.S. reaction to AIDS was far from swift in the early 1980s and that China's epidemic didn't take off until much later.

Cohen said Gallo's involvement is important because of his eminence as an AIDS researcher. Also, he said, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the institute's clinical program, is a world authority in the management of patients on anti-HIV drugs. "The Chinese will benefit enormously," he said.

The collaboration will cost about $7 million over three years, with funding from the Chinese and U.S. governments, and outside sources that have yet to be found, according to Dave Wilkins, the institute's chief operating officer.

One of the institute's central roles will be to help China find drug combinations that are most suitable for its population, Redfield said. In the U.S., therapy often consists of three-drug "cocktails" chosen from more than 20 drugs now available. China has access to a half-dozen anti-HIV medications, although more might soon be available.

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