Physicians Continue AIDS Research With $9 Million

January 03, 2000

Patients at Strong Memorial Hospital will continue to be among the first to have access to new experimental therapies to treat AIDS, and its physicians will help map out the strategy against the disease, thanks to new funding approved last week by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Strong physicians will receive $1.8 million in the year 2000 and a total of approximately $9 million during the next five years to continue their studies into the basic biology of the AIDS virus and to explore new ways to treat the disease. Physicians and scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center make up one of 32 AIDS clinical trials units across the country that together comprise a nationwide AIDS study network funded by NIH.

The nationwide AIDS Clinical Trials Group funded by NIH is the most prominent network of AIDS experts working together to understand and treat the disease. Its recommendations help determine how physicians around the world treat patients with the disease. Current work includes testing medications and recommending to other physicians the best drug regimen to treat patients, minimizing side effects of treatment, and deciding how early treatment should begin.

Strong's AIDS clinic is the largest in Upstate New York, treating and following about 800 patients. In 1986 the unit was one of the original 11 established by NIH to study the AIDS virus. Thanks to the research project, patients have access to experimental therapies that, if proven successful, will become the treatments of tomorrow. In addition, Rochester physicians will continue to set the standards that physicians nationwide follow for treating patients.

The Rochester effort is headed by Richard Reichman, M.D., chief of the Infectious Diseases Unit of the Department of Medicine. For the past three years he has been part of a national committee charged with charting the national strategy against the virus.

"The major focus over the next five years will be to address the question of whether we might be able to totally eradicate the disease in patients. Can we actually cure AIDS?" asks Reichman. "While there are still some very serious issues to address, it's almost unbelievable that we now have a dozen drugs to treat a disease that we could do virtually nothing about 15 years ago."

Reichman isn't the only Rochester physician playing a leadership role. Lisa Demeter, M.D., associate professor of medicine, is chair person of the national virology committee. She is working closely with physicians and scientists from 11 laboratories nationwide who specialize in learning how the virus attacks cells. The expertise of the virology network is crucial, as those scientists are the ones who gauge the effectiveness of new AIDS medications. The work of the Rochester virology laboratory is also central as physicians look for ways to counter patients' resistance to the highly effective protease inhibitors that have lengthened the lives of many patients dramatically.

Strong also is helping lead the national effort to prevent the disease altogether. The hospital is home to one of six AIDS vaccine evaluation units nationwide; three dozen studies investigating vaccines have been performed at the unit since it began in 1988. Under the direction of Michael Keefer, M.D., Rochester claims the highest rate in the nation of people who have volunteered to take part in the search for an AIDS vaccine: More than 600 people in the area have participated. Volunteers at the center are taking part in the first large-scale efficacy study of an AIDS vaccine, and the University is home to the very first person in the world enrolled in a study sponsored by Merck that is looking at a new type of AIDS vaccine based on "naked DNA."

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