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Sharp Serves as Part of AIDS Panel

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

The head of the AIDS Research program at the National Institutes of Health has proposed spending more money on basic science projects, emphasizing the need for basic knowledge about the HIV virus and its effect on the immune system.

Money currently spent on clinical trials would be shifted to fund scientists studying basic science aspects of the disease.

Director of the NIH Office of AIDS Research William E. Paul wants to change the focus of the government's AIDS-research program. He recently announced that he would create a panel to evaluate the NIH's AIDS program, according to an article in the Feb. 17 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the members of this panel - made up of scientists and AIDS experts - is Head of the Department of Biology Phillip A. Sharp. "I think there's going to be a total review of all AIDS research, and that's appropriate, given that Paul's just been appointed," Sharp said.

Under new legislation, the Office of AIDS Research is responsible for creating a plan that sets the scientific priorities to be used in making the NIH AIDS research budget, the Chronicle reported.

More than $1.3 billion was spent on the AIDS research program in 1995, according to an article written by Paul in the Feb. 3 issue of Science.

Sharp suspected that the review will result in "some shift in emphasis" in federal funding of AIDS research, but he did not want to presuppose this outcome.

"I think the issue is how many resources are used to directly support clinical trials with drugs or other therapies" versus the support of new knowledge about the HIV virus and immunology, Sharp said.

Most likely the data from this study will be in by summer, and the panel will make some conclusions by the fall, Sharp said.

Some biologists at MIT are conducting research that is related to AIDS or the HIV virus, Sharp said. This work "is more basic than it is directly clinical," Sharp said. However, it is hard to differentiate between basic and clinical research in biomedical science, "particularly in a field like AIDS," he said.

Basic science key to robust therapy

Paul's article explained the need for the change in focus. "The first decade of research on AIDS emphasized the nation's commitment to respond promptly and vigorously," Paul wrote. Useful research has been done, including understanding the development of the disease and creating a class of drugs that inhibits reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that enables HIV to proliferate.

"Nonetheless, these achievements have not provided us with the robust therapies that had been hoped for, nor is a highly effective preventive vaccine in sight," Paul wrote. Basic research aimed at understanding HIV's activity and the body's response to the virus is needed right now, he wrote.

"Simple continuation of the policies of the past is likely to bring us only slow, fitful progress," Paul wrote.

Presently, about 23 percent of the AIDS budget at the NIH goes to "unsolicited, investigator-initiated grants." Paul wants to increase this to 40 percent of the budget, according to the Chronicle.

"To further the shift, Dr. Paul is expected to move as much as $10 million out of the $70 million program for clinical trials on AIDS and use that money for basic research," enabling the office to finance 75 to 100 new investigator-initiated research grants, the Chronicle reported.

At MIT, Professor of Biology David Baltimore PhD '61 is currently in a collaboration to "visualize the immune cells that are killed by the [HIV] virus in a patient," Sharp said.

Professor Emeritus of Biology Herman N. Eisen has worked with T cells from AIDS patients, studying their deficiency in cell culture, Sharp said. Professor of Biology Richard A. Young is trying to create a better vaccine, Sharp said.

These projects include basic research, but they are also clinical programs since they all consider the patient in some way, Sharp said. It is "hard to dissect out basic and clinical research in biological research."