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Scientists find molecule to harness AIDS virus

In a basic discovery that eventually could lead to powerful new types of AIDS drugs or even a vaccine, researchers have identified in the laboratory a natural molecule that prevents the AIDS virus from infecting cells.

The molecule was discovered by a team led by famed AIDS researcher Robert Gallo. A report in the journal Science said the molecule works against HIV by physically blocking the portal used by the virus to invade lymphocytes and other types of blood cells.Three similar molecules, all called chemokines, were found earlier by Gallo's team at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But Gallo said the new molecule is much more effective because it protects all the cell types attacked by HIV.

Periodic injections of these chemokines could create a barrier between HIV and its target cells, and prevent the virus from spreading its deadly infection, Gallo said.

"Its breadth of activity and its potency will make it more important than any of the other chemokines found so far," he said in an interview.

He emphasized, however, that before chemokines can be tried against HIV in humans, the molecules must be extensively tested in monkeys against a related virus called SIV, or simian immunodeficiency virus, the monkey equivalent of HIV, human immuno- de-ficiency virus. Such testing could take several years.

Discovery of the new chemokine comes just as doctors report that some AIDS virus is developing a resistance to the three-drug combination that has successfully suppressed HIV in thousands of pa-tients. That combination of reverse transcriptase and protease inhibitors works against the virus inside the target cell.

Chemokines would work against HIV by preventing the virus from entering those cells.