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The Ones HIV Left in Limbo

Salvage therapy is the last resort of a largely unknown and unlucky minority who began treatment before multidrug 'cocktails.'

January 19, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In a consultation room at San Francisco General Hospital, Warren Ratcliffe rolls up the leg of his jeans to display an anachronism. Purplish brown, leech-shaped splotches cover his left shin and calf.

They exist also, he says, on his stomach and chest, and he fears they might appear on his hands and face, where clothing won't obscure them.

Kaposi's sarcoma, once the familiar and portentous calling card of the deadly AIDS epidemic, has all but disappeared over the last decade, during which multidrug "cocktail" therapy has drained HIV of much of its ferocity and returned many patients to normal lives.

The markings on Ratcliffe's skin, however, tell of a grim exception.

For an estimated 40,000 Americans such as Ratcliffe, the newer treatments have not subdued the disease. Most members of that group had the bad fortune of being diagnosed with HIV when single-drug treatment -- or monotherapy -- was all that was available.

Monotherapy gave the virus only one obstacle to mutate past, and as researchers later discovered, resistance to the drug often developed. Multidrug therapy, which was initiated in 1996 and usually consists of three medications, usually presents the virus with a virtually insurmountable mutational challenge.

But longtime monotherapy patients are an unfortunate exception. Because the drug they have taken is one of the three types used in the multidrug cocktails, if their virus has already become resistant, it can more easily become resistant to other drugs in the mix too.

That leaves veterans of monotherapy playing a fearsome waiting game, trying to stay alive long enough for new drugs -- which their infection might not be resistant to -- to become available while their doctors repeatedly improvise with existing medications to slow their progress toward death.

This little-known corner of HIV medicine is called salvage therapy, the last resort of this unlucky minority.

Warren Ratcliffe's arduous journey through disease and treatment illustrates the plight of those who wind up in salvage therapy.

A 58-year-old native of Mississippi, he settled in San Francisco after serving four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He thinks he was infected in 1976.

The disease lay dormant for a dozen years, but in 1988 he took an HIV test and was found to have the virus. Ratcliffe was immediately put on AZT, a drug that is in one of the three major classes of current HIV medications.

Although he had stomach problems with AZT, he had no symptoms of the disease itself for three more years, and his infection-fighting T-cells were, at 400 per milliliter of blood, near normal numbers -- a sign that his immune system was operating effectively.

In 1991, however, a dermatologist discovered a lesion from Kaposi's sarcoma on the back of his right leg -- proof that the AZT was no longer working.

Ratcliffe was then put on daily alpha interferon injections that had him "feeling like I'd been run over by a bus, and it backed up and ran over me again. Basically I had one day a week -- maybe two -- when I felt human."

What ensued over the following years was a cascade of medications sequentially and in combinations, none of which succeeded in knocking the virus down to undetectable levels. Two experimental drugs Ratcliffe has taken as part of clinical trials have failed.

Now his salvage therapy regimen reads like a pharmaceutical catalog: Neupogen (three injections a week to boost his white blood cell count); Fuzeon (two injections a day to help prevent the virus from fusing with normal cells); Crixivan (two pills a day; a protease inhibitor that interferes with HIV's replication process); Kaletra (three capsules twice a day; another protease inhibitor); Viread, Epzicom and Zerit (one pill a day each to interfere with the virus' ability to make DNA); Zithromax (one pill a week to prevent opportunistic infections); and Bactrim (one pill a day to combat infections).

Despite all this, his T-cell count is down to 37. Anything below 200 is considered an indicator of full-blown AIDS. His weight is low, and he sometimes has difficulty giving himself injections because of a lack of fat beneath the skin.

"I've had every drug out there and the virus keeps building resistance to them," Ratcliffe said. "My problem is, I need three new drugs.... So, we try to maintain until there are additional drugs available and I can take more than one at a time."

Through sleeplessness and constant bone pain, Ratcliffe is still able to attend to errands and other aspects of normal life, thanks in large part, he says, to the support of his partner, who is also a veteran of monotherapy but whose virus has been suppressed to undetectable levels by multidrug treatment.

Ratcliffe says the fact he is still alive is due to the level of HIV expertise among doctors in San Francisco, and especially to the talent of Dr. Steven Deeks, possibly the world's leading authority on salvage therapy.

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