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Drug Therapy Slows AIDS, Study Shows

September 11, 1997|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

In the first study of its kind, researchers report today that so-called triple therapy for HIV-positive individuals can not only reduce blood levels of the virus, but also significantly slows the progression from infection to actual clinical symptoms of AIDS.

In a separate study, scientists also show that the combination of a protease inhibitor with two conventional antiviral drugs, AZT and 3TC, can keep AIDS virus levels low for as long as a year. Some experts had feared that the virus would become resistant to such combinations or that the drugs would lose effect over time.

The two studies in the New England Journal of Medicine provide strong confirmation that triple therapy is the best way to attack AIDS and that its use should be extended to the about two-thirds of America's 900,000 HIV-positive people who are not receiving it, experts said.

"This is the first definitive study documenting the effectiveness of this therapy for such a sustained period," said Dr. John W. Mellors of the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Health Care System.

"This is a giant step toward making HIV infection a controllable illness," said Dr. Roy Gulick of the New York University School of Medicine.

In an editorial in the same issue, the New England Journal of Medicine called for mandatory nationwide reporting of the names of HIV-positive individuals to health authorities in an effort to better control spread of the disease. California, New York and 21 other states do not require such reporting.

Now that HIV infection has become more manageable, such reporting would allow health authorities to identify other infected individuals more quickly and begin treatment, journal deputy editor Dr. Robert Steinbrook argued in the editorial.

Early in the AIDS epidemic, the stigma associated with HIV infections was so great that researchers thought privacy issues overwhelmed the need for such notifications. But mandatory reporting has grown much less controversial recently, largely because new treatments have allowed many such individuals to carry on normal lives.

Some Orange County AIDS activists said they agreed with mandatory reporting but cautioned that it must include protection laws so people with AIDS do not face discrimination.

Pearl Jemison-Smith, a board member of the Irvine-based AIDS Services Foundation, said people would be deterred from getting tested for AIDS if mandatory reporting meant disclosure of names.

"People won't want to get tested if their names are going to be reported and recorded in a registrar," she said. She recommended that lawmakers fashion an anonymous reporting system that would use codes to identify and tally people who are HIV-positive.

She and other AIDS advocacy groups met with the county Board of Supervisors Wednesday to push for a county anti-discrimination ordinance that will help those with HIV return to their jobs and homes without facing hardships.

Scott Wylie, executive director of the Santa Ana-based Public Law Center, said such ordinances are increasingly imperative.

"Years ago, we didn't have any cases because HIV-positive people would die," Wylie said. "With improvement in the delivery of health care, more people with HIV now are able to return to the workplace."

Currently, Laguna Beach is the only city in Orange County that has passed an ordinance to protect people with AIDS.

The four protease inhibitors now approved by the Food and Drug Administration have revolutionized the treatment of AIDS over the past two years. The new drugs, which block the activity of an enzyme called protease that is crucial to replication of the virus, are quite potent by themselves in halting proliferation of HIV.

But when combined with two other, more conventional AIDS drugs, they have been shown in a number of studies to reduce the amount of HIV in the bloodstream to levels that are undetectable with existing technology.

Researchers have assumed that lowering virus levels so dramatically would improve the patient's condition, but the new study is the first to document that, Gulick said.

In the first study, conducted at 30 sites across the country--including UCLA, UC San Diego and the San Diego VA Medical Center--1,156 patients were given either triple therapy with the protease inhibitor indinavir added to AZT and 3TC or the combination of AZT and 3TC alone.

This study was especially valuable, said Dr. Douglas Richman of the San Diego VA and UC San Diego, because the patients reflected a cross-section of AIDS patients in this country. Twenty-eight percent of the participants were African American, 19% were Hispanic and 17% were female. Most previous studies of triple therapy, he said, have focused primarily on gay white males.

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