January 28, 1996
Web posted at: 6:20 p.m. EST
From Medical Correspondent Jeff Levine
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Federal researchers have gained new insight into how the virus that causes AIDS escapes a person's natural ability to combat disease and tricks the immune system into a suicidal overreaction.
Under the direction of Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, scientists studied subtle immune reactions to the AIDS virus in 27 patients.
They have discovered that human immuno-defiency virus, or HIV, the virus associated with AIDS, causes the body's disease fighters to undertake a high-powered immune reaction in the first weeks of the infection, Fauci said.
"It is an ingenious mechanism that the virus uses by having this big burst of expansion and the cells respond," Fauci told CNN. "And then they essentially get overwhelmed." (140K AIFF sound or 140K WAV sound)
Contrary to some theories, researchers discovered the virus does not mutate in the early stages, but waits until later to start that process. Instead, some of the HIV hides at a low level in the lymph glands and emerges after the initial onslaught of the immune system is over, Fauci explained.
The immune system becomes exhausted trying to eliminate the HIV, ultimately allowing the virus to thrive, according to Fauci.
"The best troops come out in their finest glory ... they do their very best, but they don't completely eliminate the virus," he said. "This thing happens very, very early in the course of infection, and the result of this virus escape is the establishment of chronic infection." (175K AIFF sound or 175K WAV sound)
Fauci said the findings suggest therapy at the earliest stages of the HIV infection could have significant results and could pave the way for an AIDS vaccine which would keep the virus at a relatively low level, preventing the immune system from overreacting.
"Vaccines, if they can blunt that initial, enormous burst of virus production early on, even if it doesn't prevent initial infection, may dramatically alter the course of infection," Fauci said.
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