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Drug for Other Diseases May Have Use Against AIDS

I’m Barbara Klein with the VOA Special English Health Report.

Scientists say they were able to decrease levels of the AIDS virus with a drug designed for other conditions.

AIDS suppresses the immune system so the body cannot fight deadly infections. Currently, medicines can reduce the virus to levels low enough to keep people alive. But these drugs are not a cure. Very small amounts of virus hide in what scientists call resting cells in the immune system.

If an infected cell reawakens, the virus becomes active. It begins to copy itself again. So people must continue to take antiretroviral drugs.

The new study involved four patients. They had already taken combinations of AIDS drugs for more than two years. The researchers intensified the effect of the drugs. Then they added one more, valproic acid. Valproic acid is used to control seizures in the treatment of epilepsy. Some people with depression take the drug for bipolar disorder.

But valproic acid has also been shown to block an enzyme that helps H.I.V., the AIDS virus, to hide. The patients took the medicine two times a day for three months.

The researchers say the number of infected cells decreased by an average of seventy-five percent in three of the four people. But the numbers returned to earlier levels when the treatment ended.

Doctor David Margolis led the study at the University of Texas. He just took a new job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The team reported the results in the Lancet medical journal.

Valproic acid has some serious risks, including to pregnant women. Doctor Margolis says more study is needed into its use against AIDS. But the scientists do say that their early finding suggests that new methods "will allow the cure of H.I.V. in the future." Some other scientists, however, say it is too early to talk of a cure for a virus that is so difficult to destroy.

They say a cure would have to get every last infected cell. And the virus might not hide only in the immune system. Still, in a related commentary, AIDS researcher Jean-Pierre Routy says the early results call for "further urgent study."

H.I.V. is spread through bodily fluids. AIDS is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Last year, more than three million people died and an estimated five million more became infected.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Cynthia Kirk. Our reports are on the Web at I’m Barbara Klein.