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Utah scientists have found that sunlight might increase the activity of the HIV virus that is the precursor to AIDS, but they recommend that their findings be interpreted cautiously by people with AIDS and other members of the public.

John Morrey, researcher in the department of animal, dairy and veterinary sciences at Utah State University, said a team of researchers from USU, the University of Utah and the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, N.J., worked on the experiments.Their results were published last fall in the Journal of Virology.

The issue of ultraviolet light potentially increasing the virus made national news last week after the Albuquerque Tribune printed a March 12 news story regarding somewhat similar findings obtained through different research methods by scientists at Lovelace Medical Foundation in New Mexico.

The Utah experiments involved mice that were genetically engineered so they would possess a portion of the HIV virus. The animals were exposed to ultraviolet light in the laboratory and to natural sunlight.

Morrey said irradiating the skin of the mice with ultraviolet light "activated expression of the HIV viral promoter dramatically, which suggests that ultraviolet light exposure of HIV-infected people might accelerate the disease."

However, he was quick to say he was not a physician and does not treat people with AIDS. "It might be somewhat inappropriate for me to suggest what patients might do. However, a person might be aware that the possibility does exist (that light could speed up the disease) and they might inquire with their physician."

Morrey said more research is needed, particularly to see if similar results would occur in humans.

"Don't overinterpret the results because we did not use the whole infectious virus," he said. "Without the whole infectious virus, the immune system cannot be studied."

Instead, the experiments involved the HIV control region of the virus called a promoter. "What we did was devise a method that could measure expression of this HIV promoter in genetically engineered mice."

One problem in AIDS research is that HIV causes disease in humans but does not in other animals.

"The HIV virus, as isolated from people, does not infect any other animals to cause a similar disease. The lack of a perfect animal model infected by HIV is missing. It's really been one of the big limitations in AIDS research," Morrey said.

The other researchers involved in the effort were USU professors Robert Fidwell and Thomas Bunch, in the department of animal, dairy and veterinary sciences; University of Utah professor Raymond Daynes in the department of pathology, associate professor Louis Barrows in the department of pharmacology and toxicology; and Craig Rosen, who heads the department of gene regulation at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology.