Aids therapy ignites row

July 6, 2001

Plans to trial a controversial Aids therapy in South Africa have sparked a bitter row between Cambridge University scientists.

Abraham Karpas, a virologist and the first British researcher to isolate the Aids virus, claims that his proposals to test Passive Immune Therapy (PIT) in collaboration with the University of Natal in Durban are being scuppered by Sir Keith Peters, head of the Cambridge clinical school.

Sir Keith insists that fair and professional judgement directed his blocking a £150,000 grant to fund the work. He raised ethical concerns and echoed misgivings by senior Aids researchers about PIT, which seems much less effective than the latest drugs.

But calls for a full trial have been joined by Nobel laureate and immunologist César Milstein, a friend and one-time collaborator with Dr Karpas, as well as medical practitioners who have administered the treatment and several East African colleagues.

Dr Karpas said PIT, which involves transfusing treated serum from healthy HIV-positive individuals into sufferers of more advanced Aids, could prolong life by boosting the immune system.

His Durban collaborator, Alan Smith, a South African virologist who specialises in HIV/Aids, believes it could be ideal for a continent where most people cannot afford western drugs.

"It is certainly worth a trial in a desperate country like South Africa," said Professor Smith, who in March asked Sir Keith to release the suspended grant.

But PIT has failed to convince the Aids research community over 15 years.

Dr Karpas was refused Medical Research Council backing for his work in the mid-1990s and some are concerned that PIT has not proved sufficiently effective in its limited trials. Several expressed fears that this latest episode merely risked engendering false hope.

Sir Keith said that Dr Karpas's grant application had not addressed crucial ethical considerations or the probable cost of PIT.

"It would be wrong to participate in a research programme in Africa that would not meet the high ethical and regulatory requirements demanded in the United Kingdom setting," he said.

The Isaac Newton Trust, which funds Cambridge University projects, gave £150,000 towards an African trial of PIT in 1998 on condition that "the design of the clinical trials and informed consent procedures took into account appropriate expertise and were approved by the trust's advisers".

John Rallison, director of the trust, said trustees had raised concerns about these issues, which placed a "heavy responsibility on Sir Keith Peters" as head of the clinical school.

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