In a new assault on AIDS, researchers said Wednesday they plan to alter the genetic makeup of infected newborns to destroy the virus before it harms them.
The experimental approach, not yet approved, represents an attempt to head off AIDS at the earliest possible stage in its youngest victims.When HIV, the AIDS virus, invades the body, it takes over white blood cells. Then it turns these cells into virus factories, eventually killing them as it spews new copies of HIV into the bloodstream.
The new idea is to arm these cells with a weapon against AIDS - a protein that cripples HIV by chopping up its viral genes.
The approach was outlined by Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal of the University of California-San Diego at the 10th International Conference on AIDS.
She said she hopes to begin testing it on infected babies within a year and eventually to develop a simple AIDS treatment that can be given in a single injection.
"This might seem like an unreachable goal right now, but we should bear in mind that gene therapy is a rapidly developing field," Wong-Staal said.
Her approach is one of several kinds of gene therapy under consideration to attack HIV. The ideas, which would have been considered science fiction only a few years ago, are now being seriously discussed as more traditional approaches to control the disease have failed.
Drug therapy has been disappointing because the virus quickly evolves inside the body to elude the effects of these medicines. No vaccines have been developed with a clear chance of protecting against infection.
Dr. William Paul, director of the U.S. Office of AIDS Research, cited "great enthusiasm about the potential of gene therapy to limit the capacity of cells to support the growth of the virus."
But whether gene therapy will work is still uncertain. In fact, no one knows whether anything can slow or stop the virus once it becomes established in the body.