AIDS DRUGS: Research Hints At New, Cheaper Therapies
In "a finding that could have major importance for the 50% of HIV-positive Americans not receiving treatment because of its cost," researchers may have found "the first inexpensive AIDS drug," the Los Angeles Times reports. The drug, called hydroxyurea, has been used along with two other AIDS drugs to induce "what may be a permanent remission in three HIV-positive patients who have now gone for more than a year without treatment." Hydroxyurea has been used successfully in treating leukemia for the past two decades and "is unique in that it affects host cells in the patient rather [than] the virus." Most importantly, "[t]he drug is inexpensive -- no more than $30 per month, compared with the $1,300 monthly cost of ... a chemical combination that includes the new class of AIDS drug called protease inhibitors." The Los Angeles Times notes that "[i]t is not yet clear whether hydroxyurea could replace protease inhibitors ... or whether they would have to be used in combination."
Skepticism and Belief
Some experts "are skeptical" about claims that hydroxyurea has can induce AIDS remission, the Los Angeles Times reports, yet those "impressed by reported successes ... have begun incorporating it into their own treatment regimens." Dr. Paul Volberding of the University of California-San Francisco said, "I think it is going to become a pretty permanent fixture." Scientists are particularly hopeful that the drug may prevent HIV resistance to other drugs. "Hydroxyurea may, in fact, turn out to be a 'sheltering' drug in that it protects other drugs so that resistant mutations do not occur as rapidly," concluded Dr. Julianna Lisziewicz, one of the researchers studying the drug. Although there are no exclusive corporate rights to hydroxyurea, Bristol Myers-Squibb, which uses the drug to treat cancer under the name Hydrea, "has agreed to sponsor a new trial in combination with [didanosine], another AIDS drug that the company sells" (Maugh II, 2/6).
The New York Times reports that "[e]fforts to make it easier to take combinations of drugs to combat the AIDS virus have met with mixed results," according to scientists at the Fifth Conference On Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. Attempting to make the difficult pill-taking regime for the anti-AIDS cocktail more manageable for patients as well as to reduce the incidence of HIV's resistance to one or more of the drugs, "scientists have developed laboratory tests to guide the initial choice of drugs and then to monitor the combination." Already, they have created "new combinations of the 11 licensed anti-HIV drugs," hoping to lessen the incidence of failed drug combinations and their "unwanted effects." They are also experimenting with using only two of the three drugs in the anti-AIDS cocktail for long-term therapy. To date, none of the new combinations has met with success. However, "[o]n a brighter note, other studies suggested that combinations of two members of the protease inhibitor class of drugs were effective in suppressing HIV" (Altman, 2/6).