The U.S. scientist credited with co-discovering the AIDS virus was optimistic about finding new treatments, speculating gene therapy and a mutant soil bacterium may eventually prove effective.
"I think in the last year we have seen more pessimism than is needed regarding HIV infection for HIV-infected people," Dr. Robert Gallo of the U.S. National Cancer Institute told the 7th International Conference on AIDS Tuesday."Basic biomedical research must, can and will solve the problem for infected people," said Gallo, who co-discovered the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, in 1984.
Many researchers later stressed that Gallo's work was preliminary and worried that because of his stature patients might jump to the erroneous conclusion that he actually has new treatments available.
"Question the science and cross-examine the hype," Britain's Dr. Ian Weller cautioned thousands of AIDS researchers as the third day of the conference began.
The focus of Gallo's 30-minute presentation was on a potential treatment for a rare type of cancer known as Kaposi's sarcoma, which is unusually common in HIV-infected people, especially homosexual men, blotches the skin with purple patches and can be fatal.
Gallo's laboratory, he said, has identified a mutant of a bacterium found in the soil that has prevented and "greatly decreased" Kaposi's sarcoma tumors artificially introduced to laboratory mice.
The compound, called SP-PG, is similar in structure to the commonly used heart medicine heparin, he said. In collaboration with Gallo's lab, Daiichi Pharmaceutical Co. in Tokyo, Japan, has been attempting to produce large batches of SP-PG so it can be tested in larger animals and, if warranted, HIV-infected humans.
But because of production problems, Gallo said, Daiichi has yet to produce large enough quantities of SP-PG for the planned tests.
Gallo also described a future "gene therapy" that his lab is investigating.
Gallo envisions being able to remove immune system cells from HIV-infected people's bone marrow. The bone marrow is where new immune system cells are made before they travel to the tissues and blood to fight organisms that, like HIV, invade the body. Because the cells are new, they should be free of HIV.
After removing these cells, Gallo believes it will be possible to genetically engineer their genes so that they can never be infected with HIV. Theoretically, this could eventually restore much of the immune system of a person infected with the AIDS virus.
But Gallo stressed that the approach is highly speculative and many years of research will be needed before anyone knows if the method is feasible.
Two groups of protesters interrupted the conference proceedings. A small band of people who object to animals being used in research unfurled a banner and chanted slogans as Gallo started speaking.
Another, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP, distributed pamphlets while a University of Washington researcher spoke. The pamphlets criticized the school's proposed policy for dealing with its HIV-infected physicians and medical students.
Power of positive thinking
The power of positive thinking plays an important role in helping AIDS victims survive longer, said a U.S. researcher who has lived with the fatal disease for five years.
"They are not depressed. They refuse to give up," Lewis Katoff said of 53 homosexual men in the first study of the attitudes of AIDS sufferers who have survived three years or longer.
The 37-year-old psychologist from New York said that many in the group believed their positive attitude was the main factor helping them to stay alive.