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Ten years after AIDS was recognized as an insidious killer, researchers say their seventh annual world conference on the disease will focus on efforts to lengthen patients' lives.

Organizers of the six-day gathering in Florence said many of the 4,800 reports to be presented give hope for prolonging lives with drugs. The conference opens Sunday evening and presentations begin Monday.On the eve of the conference, two of the deans of AIDS research differed on just how optimistic they can be about beating Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, attacks the immune system, leaving victims susceptible to a wide variety of infections and cancers. The World Health Organization estimated last month that 40 million people worldwide will be infected by the year 2000, and as many as 10 million will have developed full-blown AIDS.

Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, appeared on television Friday in Rome along with his French rival, Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute and other leading figures at the conference.

Gallo said the prospect of combining immunizations with chemotherapy "gives us reason to believe the answer will come sooner than anyone thinks."

He predicted research will not only come up with a solution to AIDS but will produce benefits for treating other diseases.

Montagnier, who has long feuded with Gallo over which of them discovered the AIDS virus, was more cautious.

"We were initially optimistic and we still are," he said. "But it's a disease very much more complex than we thought."

"We must still be modest, humble," Montagnier said. "Many vaccines will be tried in the coming years . . . and we'll succeed in combining several therapies as we do with some cancers to prolong the life of patients in good health."

He suggested more research must be done into factors that help the AIDS virus to thrive.

A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested a new approach to vaccine research - vaccinating people who already are infected, instead of following the usual strategy of using vaccines on healthy people to protect against disease. The report said genetically engineered vaccine appears at least to halt the ravages of the virus temporarily.

In another forum Friday, Gallo ventured to say that scientists would come up with a vaccine by the end of the century. A few years ago, he said, he wouldn't have thought so.

About 250 people with AIDS are among the approximately 8,000 conference delegates, who include doctors, drug company officials, social workers and activists.

Italian newspapers said hotels were given information on how to handle guests who have AIDS. Some cafe and restaurant owners were considering giving out plastic cups. Mayor Giorgio Morales told them not to, saying using disposable cups would not affect the spread of the disease.