FORT DETRICK, Md. (Reuters) - John Coffin has a shiny new lab,
a multi-million dollar budget and a team of six different
research groups to play with. Such a brand-new facility is a
dream for government-funded research scientists, who are more
used to dealing with leaking ceilings and cracked floors.
But Coffin's two-day-a-week job running the National Cancer
Institute's HIV drug resistance program is serious business.
Its very existence shows that the U.S. government realizes a
cure for AIDS is a very long way away.
World Health Organization figures released ahead of World AIDS
Day this week showed that more than 21 million people have died
from AIDS since it was identified two decades ago. Thirty-six
million people are infected with the virus.
There is still no cure, and no vaccine. And the lucky few
people who can get the cocktails of drugs that suppress HIV are
finding that they stop working after a time.
Coffin's job was created to face up to that stark fact and to
try to find ways to identify and fight HIV's resistance to
"We've got six research groups doing different things," Coffin
said in an interview. "We have a clinical program, doing
studies on the virus's genetic variation, new approaches to
salvage therapy in patients that have failed all kinds of other
Coffin, a molecular biologist and virus expert at Tufts
University in Boston, travels to the converted Army base at
Fort Detrick in Maryland -- ironically once a site for research
into biological weapons -- to oversee the research.
While his lab tests the effects of existing drugs, hundreds of
labs around the country and around the world are racing to come
up with new and better drugs. 103 New Drugs And Vaccines In
More than 100 such drugs and vaccines are in the research
pipeline, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of
America (PhRMA), a drug company industry group, says in its
latest report on AIDS drugs.
Most are aimed against the diseases that take root after HIV
has ravaged a patient's immune system -- cancer, fungal
infections, pneumonia. The industry group says 30 anti-viral
drugs are being developed, most of them improvements on
existing drugs such as the protease inhibitors.
"A lot of it is really second and third generations of that
which is out there, which is not surprising because almost all
drugs go through that evolutionary process," PhRMA executive
John Siegfried said in a telephone interview.
"Working toward better dosing schedules, working toward fewer
pills is also a part of it." HIV patients currently have to
take dozens of pills a day, at different times and often with
or without certain foods.
New approaches include the fusion inhibitors -- such as AnorMED
of Canada's's AMD-3100 and T-20, being developed by Hoffman-La
Roche and Trimeris of Durham, North Carolina. These drugs
prevent HIV from attaching to the immune cells it attacks.
"If you can really interfere with its ability to enter a cell,
that would be fantastic," Siegfried said.
The survey also finds 13 vaccines being tested in people, the
furthest along of which is VaxGen's AIDSVAX, and immune system
modulators meant to help the body fight off the virus with its
Siegfried joins other experts who fear that news about the
available drugs is making people complacent and lulling them
into risky behaviors.
"The fact that the death rate dropped 80 percent (in the United
States) and the fact that people are living much longer is
misinterpreted by many, many people as meaning AIDS is no
longer a threat in the United States," he said.
"What really disturbs me as private citizen is that AIDS is
preventable and we have known how to prevent it for over a
decade now and yet still the rate of infection is high. Condom
use and safe sex practices will prevent the spread of AIDS."