For the first time, researchers have produced antibodies that can protect cells against the AIDS virus, and plan to try the first laboratory vaccine test on chimpanzees in a few weeks, a National Cancer Institute official said yesterday.

The work still leaves a human vaccine years away, said cancer institute associate director Peter J. Fischinger at a news conference. But, he added, "The path toward a vaccine is fairly straightforward."

The progress reported yesterday involves the basic principles governing the creation of vaccines. A vaccine coaxes the body to make antibodies that spot invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. In most cases, the antibodies attack and disable foreign organisms. But some invading organisms do not trigger a strong reaction that brings out antibodies, and some antibodies fail to disable foreign organisms.

With acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus -- HTLV-3 -- scientists do not know whether a vaccine can be made to disable the virus in humans. That meant research was necessary on animals to see if they would produce antibodies, and if the antibodies could stop AIDS. Even though most animals do not get AIDS when infected with the virus, they do respond to the infection. Fischinger said test animals included mice, rabbits, pigs, and other animals up the evolutionary line to rhesus monkeys.

The animals produced antibodies to the AIDS virus, and when those antibodies were put into culture dishes full of live cells, Fischinger found they protected the cells from death by the AIDS virus.

The next and more significant step will be to vaccinate chimpanzees to get them to produce antibodies, then inject them with the AIDS virus to see if the chimps are protected from the virus, he said.

In his research, Fischinger led several groups cooperating at the National Institutes of Health and the Duke University Medical Center.