Twice a week, the 11 people--most of them homosexual men in their 30s--pay a visit to the low, white trailers that house the allergy and immunology clinic at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.
They roll up their sleeves and get a shot.
Half of them receive a drug, half get a placebo. All of them get hope.
The men include lawyers, doctors, auto mechanics and waiters. They come from Long Beach, Los Angeles and the South Bay. One moved from Tennessee just to become part of the group. Many hold down jobs, but some are so weak that on some days they can hardly get out of bed.
They are willing to test a drug that may not work and may have unpleasant side effects. But their health, and perhaps their lives, are at stake.
They are people who have ARC, or AIDS-related complex, a less-virulent form of the deadly immune deficiency disease that leaves the body vulnerable to a variety of infections. But people can die from ARC, and in about 30% of the cases, ARC develops into acquired immune deficiency, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Stopping this progression by restoring the immune system is what these 11 people are trying to accomplish as volunteer patients in a study of the drug thymostimulin, which is marketed in a few European countries but is not available in the United States. Researchers say the drug appears to promote the proliferation of T-helper, or T4, cells, which are key components of the body's immune system.
Dr. Keith Beck, an infectious-disease specialist on the research team, said the study, which is under way at Harbor's Research and Education Institute and three other locations in the United States, is the first controlled investigation of the drug in this country utilizing controls approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It employs a double-blind system, in which neither researchers nor the patients know who is getting the drug and who is not.
Beck said the work could be "very significant research" if the drug proves to have a powerful effect on the disease. He cautioned that even then, thymostimulin will not be a miracle cure because it does not address the other half of the AIDS and ARC puzzle: how to kill or stop the spread of the HTLV-III virus that causes the disease.
However, Beck said thymostimulin could be significant in combination with an anti-viral drug, such as the experimental azidothymidine, or AZT, which the federal government recently approved for use by AIDS patients on a controlled basis because of a successful test. AZT does not kill the virus, but it stops its spread by disrupting the chemical chain it needs to replicate itself.
"We don't know the ultimate action, but the best hope would be a normal person without the virus, and with a restored system," Beck said. "This hasn't happened yet."
But for now, the people in the test group are focused on at least holding their own and not getting worse.
"I know half are on the placebo and half on the drug, but everybody is benefitting, just because they feel they are doing something," said a 29-year-old man called Michael, a former dancer who has been in the test group for three months. "It is giving some sort of hope, letting us do something for ourselves, rather than just sitting around waiting."
But there is some nervousness. "You get concerned when dealing with an experiment," said Randy Wendelin, a husky 31-year-old Long Beach actor who is the only patient who would allow the use of his full name. "Is it advantageous or dangerous? But it's the nature of this disease and people are willing to do experiments."
So far, the testing program, which got under way last December with the first five patients and is scheduled to continue until next spring, has produced varying results and no trends, researchers said. Patients are supposed to stay in the test group for six months but so far only one has completed the program. Some dropped out because they moved or were unable to get to the hospital regularly.
"Some have gotten worse, some have gotten better, and some are the same," Beck said. "With those who feel great, their fevers went away and they've regained the 10 pounds they lost."
Three people developed AIDS and died during the course of the test.
Two patients developed AIDS during the course of the study.
Like a Family
The program has created a feeling of family among patients and staff.
"They all become people, they are not guinea pigs," said Janet Voorhees, the research nurse who administers the shots and takes care of the patients' health needs.
"There have been times when I have gone home and cried. It's hard to see people who get so sick and become so helpless. How do you explain that you can't find out why or stop it?"
Voorhees also listens as the men pour out their angers and fears, and gets excited with them when their T-helper count goes up or they begin to feel better.
'She Really Cares'