Viral Technologies Inc., a District biomedical company, yesterday announced the discovery of a new means of attacking the AIDS virus, which it claims could speed development of a vaccine against the disease.
Dr. Allan Goldstein, scientific adviser to the company and chairman of the biochemistry department at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said Viral Technologies had developed a way to attack the "Achilles' heel, the weak point in the armament of this deadly virus."
Goldstein told a news conference that the approach may "significantly shorten the time for vaccine development" for AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). He would not give an estimate of when such a vaccine could reach the market. The National Institutes of Health recently estimated that an experimental AIDS vaccine might be available by 1988, but would take at least seven years to reach the market.
The new research method has successfully protected laboratory samples of human cells from the virus associated with AIDS, according to an article to be published in the May 30 edition of Science magazine. The article was authored by Goldstein, another scientist at George Washington University and three scientists at the National Cancer Institute. Viral Technologies owns rights to the method described in the article.
Viral Technologies is a joint venture created by Interleukin-2 Inc. and Alpha 1 Biomedicals Inc., both of Alexandria. Goldstein was a founder of Alpha 1 Biomedicals.
The approach is now being tested on rabbits and nonhuman primates, Goldstein said. It has not been used with human patients.
The Science magazine article describes a "novel" approach that attacks the proteins inside the AIDS virus, rather than its outer coat of proteins, which is called an envelope.
Most known efforts to develop an AIDS vaccine have focused on attacking that envelope. A vaccine uses a harmless agent to provoke the body's immune system into producing antibodies that seek out and disable a similar but harmful invader. The antibodies recognize the invaders by their molecular structure. One problem with this approach is that the molecular structure of the AIDS envelope often changes, so antibodies produced to attack one type of outer coat do not recognize one that might be slightly different.
A similar problem, for example, has frustrated efforts to develop a vaccine against the common cold -- a vaccine against one strain may be ineffective against other varieties, Goldstein said.
Viral Technologies scientists, working with NCI, have developed a way to stimulate the production of antibodies that attack the virus' "inner core" proteins, which are more stable.
"This is the first time people have looked at a region other than the envelope," said Prem S. Sarin, deputy chief of NCI's laboratory of tumor cell biology, and one of the authors of the article. He said that his NCI colleagues working on the virus' outer coat are pursuing "another valid approach. . . . All approaches should be tried until we get a vaccine."
Dr. Peter J. Fischinger, deputy director of NCI, who is working on developing a vaccine directed at the virus' envelope, called the article "an interesting finding . . . but very preliminary."
The virus' "weak point" -- and perhaps its secret strength -- is the similarity between sections of its inner proteins and sections of a hormone produced by the human thymus gland, which regulates immune activity, the Science article said. The article describes studies using a man-made version of the hormone, called thymosin alpha 1. The researchers found that antibodies to the hormone also attacked the AIDS virus.
This similarity between the natural hormone and the virus' inner structure may explain why AIDS patients do not produce enough antibodies to kill the virus, the article said. The body normally does not produce antibodies to attack itself, and may not recognize the AIDS virus as an invader.