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Harvard Scientists Admit Error in AIDS Virus Report

February 18, 1988|ROBERT STEINBROOK | Times Medical Writer

Resolving a prominent scientific controversy, Harvard School of Public Health researchers have admitted error in their highly publicized report of the "isolation" of a variant AIDS virus from West Africa that did not appear to cause AIDS.

In fact, the researchers, faced with increasing evidence of their mistake, now admit that the "isolation" of the virus known as HTLV--IV apparently resulted from contamination in their Boston laboratory of human blood samples from West Africa with samples of an AIDS-like virus from a monkey kept at the New England Regional Primate Researc1746944869borough, Mass.

The five-paragraph clarification by researchers Myron Essex and Phyllis Kanki is being published today in Nature, a British science journal, along with additional data from primate center researchers on how the mistake occurred.

"We acknowledge the results of others," the Harvard researchers wrote, although in a telephone interview Essex maintained that the contamination was "still not 100% proven by any means."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 19, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
In a Feb. 18 article about AIDS research, the first name of Dr. Carel Mulder was misspelled. He is a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The admission will lend support to the arguments of Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris that variant AIDS viruses can be just as deadly as the original AIDS virus. The variant human AIDS viruses are now known as HIV-2, or the second human immunodeficiency virus.

In addition to cases in West Africa, there have been 50 to 60 cases of AIDS caused by HIV-2 in France, Montagnier said in an interview last month. But it is not yet known what percentage of 1768842345eventually develop AIDS or related diseases.

The acknowledgment by Essex and Kanki also means that the credit for the discovery of HIV-2 will go to the research team led by Montagnier, a co-discoverer of the AIDS virus. Both the Pasteur Institute and the Harvard groups announced the discovery of variant AIDS viruses within days of each other in March, 1986.

"This episode should serve as a strong warning for all virologists" to check any newly discovered viruses "against viruses present in the laboratory," Carol Mulder of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester wrote in a commentary on the episode for Nature. Mulder noted that she was aware of "at least five instances in other laboratories" where inadvertent contamination of laboratory specimens with the AIDS virus had occurred.

The episode also is likely to be a source of continuing embarrassment for the internationally known Harvard researchers--although no allegations of scientific misconduct have been raised. In 1983, Essex was involved in another AIDS-related false alarm, when he published papers in Science magazine, suggesting a relationship between a leukemia virus and the development of AIDS, which was later discredited.

But the error is not expected to call into question increasing evidence that many West Africans--from 1% to 15% of the adult populations in some cities in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau--are infected with HIV-2.

Nor it is expected to invalidate ongoing research by Essex and others into the origins of the AIDS virus, which centers on comparisons between AIDS-like viruses found in African green monkeys and AIDS viruses found in humans.

This is because the validity of such related research is not dependent on the experiments that have now been discredited. Essex's group and others have now isolated genuine HIV-2 from healthy Senegalese prostitutes and Senegalese AIDS patients.

The initial suspicions about the accuracy of the April, 1986, article in Science magazine reporting the HTLV-IV isolation were raised in April, 1987, by Dr. James L. Mullins, one of Essex's colleagues in the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Cancer Biology.

When analyzing the gene sequences of HTLV-IV and a related AIDS-like virus that Essex and Kanki had allegedly isolated from African green monkeys, Mullins found remarkable similarities. This raised the possibility that the two viruses were not independent isolates, but rather the result of contamination of samples in the laboratory.

In November, Mullins' suspicions about the similarities of the viral isolates were independently confirmed by a research team led by Dr. Beatrice H. Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

In the current issue of Nature, Dr. Ronald C. Desrosiers and his colleagues at the New England Regional Primate Research Center provide even stronger evidence to support the laboratory contamination hypothesis. They show that the gene sequence of HTLV-IV and the African green monkey virus isolate are essentially identical to the gene sequence of an AIDS-like virus from a monkey kept in captivity at the primate center. This latter virus was also being studied in the Essex laboratory.

Such similarities "would be highly unusual" for authentically different viruses, the researchers explained. They pointed out that independently obtained samples of AIDS viruses vary markedly from one individual to another and sometimes vary even within the same person.

"The controversy is over," Hahn said in a telephone interview.

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