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Protein Found That May Activate AIDS Virus : Medicine: Scientists say the discovery could spawn treatments that would prevent HIV-infected people from contracting the fatal disease.

November 09, 1994| From Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Scientists say they have discovered a protein that may activate the AIDS virus in the body and cause it to develop into AIDS.

The discovery by University of Pennsylvania scientists could lead to treatments that might enable infected people to put the human immunodeficiency virus on hold indefinitely. They still would carry the virus but might not contract the fatal disease itself.

HIV-infected people can be healthy and live for years before the virus attacks the body's immune system.

A protein isolated from a gene in HIV carriers appears to tell infected cells when to start reproducing the virus, the researchers said in an article published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We understand a new pathway the virus uses," study chief David Weiner, an assistant professor of pathology and medicine at the university, said in a telephone interview. "We now have an opportunity to design drugs to inhibit it."

Dr. Nava Sarver, one of the chief scientists in the AIDS division of the National Institutes of Health, said the study is interesting but very preliminary. Usually, studies such as Weiner's that are conducted in the laboratory do not hold up when tested in bodies, she said.

"Many other questions need to be asked to confirm these findings," Sarver said. "I feel it is not right to give hope to patients who are desperate for any type of therapy."

Dr. Alfred Saah, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said of the findings, "It's a hopeful sign and I think it's worthy of pursuit, and if it pans out it will be quite an advance."

The study centered on one of nine known HIV genes, "vpr." The gene produces a protein, known by the capitalized abbreviation "Vpr," that appears to be necessary before infected cells can produce new, infected viral particles that in turn infect other cells, Weiner said.

Scientists must know how the virus multiplies before they can design drugs to inhibit it, Weiner said.

Weiner's research team found in laboratory tests that the stage of infected people's disease corresponds with the level of "Vpr" protein in their blood.

People in the early stages of infection had low levels of the protein; those with fully developed AIDS had high levels.

When scientists exposed cells to the protein in the laboratory, they could turn latent infection to active infection.

Weiner's team also found that it could block the production of new virus by exposing the cells to "Vpr" antibodies.

He said he is trying to develop a vaccine that would create "Vpr" antibodies. The research is being conducted on small animals.

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