Lack of Funds for AIDS Study Cited : Thousands Likely to Be Denied Drugs, Researchers Say

Times Staff Writer

AIDS researchers across the nation who are conducting federally sponsored studies of experimental AIDS drugs are complaining that their funding for the coming year is inadequate and will likely deny thousands of potential AIDS patients access to these drugs, The Times has learned.

Despite the highest appropriation of federal money for AIDS research in the history of the epidemic, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which administers the program, apparently has decided to freeze the funding levels of some centers, known as AIDS Treatment Evaluation Units. The institute also may grant only small increases to others, scientists said.

"We're going to have to make do with an amount of money insufficient to do the job, and it's going to hurt some programs enormously," said one researcher, who requested anonymity.

Meeting Commitments

Dr. Anthony Fauchi, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a telephone interview that when he returns from a trip to the Virgin Islands, "I will carefully examine the request for additional money. And in situations where commitments were made--predicated on the fact that they would be getting additional money--I will do my best to make sure those commitments are met and that the program continues in an accelerated manner so that patients can continue to go into trials."

The AIDS Treatment Evaluation Units were established at many of the nation's leading academic medical institutions to speed the evaluation of new drugs that might prove effective against the deadly disease and the virus that causes it. There are now 18 such units, and 17 additional programs are being formed. Eventually the entire program will be known as the AIDS Clinical Trials Groups.

Among the centers are County-USC Medical Center, UCLA Medical Center, UC San Diego Medical Center, UC San Francisco Medical Center and Stanford University.

3,000 Patients Studied

Nearly 3,000 patients are currently participating in the drug studies and researchers said they had hoped for as much as a threefold increase in patients this year with additional funding.

Federal funds for AIDS research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for fiscal 1988 are expected to total $233 million, a substantial increase over the $145.8 million appropriated in fiscal 1987.

One agency official said the additional money will be used in part to fund the 17 new AIDS programs that are now just beginning.

However, some of the AIDS researchers said they had been urged by the agency some months ago to increase the number of patients in their programs in the coming year and to submit budgets that reflect the increased load.

"We were led to believe we should request what we believed we needed and they seemed optimistic we would get it," one researcher said. "We went ahead and hired additional people, and now we don't know how they are going to be paid."

Fund Requests Cut

One scientist said an official of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told him several days ago that the agency had expected the centers to request budget increases totaling only about $8 million. Instead, he said, they amounted to nearly four times that amount, "so they had to cut everyone's requests." He added: "We got a 10% increase when we had asked for substantially more than that."

Dr. Robert T. Schooley, a member of the Harvard University AIDS unit based at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he believes the government "just doesn't understand the complexity of these trials."

He added: "It may not be apparent just how difficult these studies are. They are very, very difficult compared to the standard drug study of an anti-cancer drug or an antibiotic. These are very sick patients who require a lot of time, and the work requires a lot of data gathering. It takes more resources to do them well."

Dr. Newton E. Hyslop Jr., who heads the Tulane-Louisiana State University unit in New Orleans, called the government's failure to provide more funds for the centers "a blow nationally to all AIDS research programs and a terrible blow to Louisiana."

Must Reduce Caseload

Hyslop said, for example, that his program, which had hoped to enroll 352 patients this year, will be forced to reduce its caseload to 50 if its budget request is ultimately denied.

Dr. Neal Steigbigel, head of the division of infectious diseases at Montifiore Medical Center in the Bronx and a co-director of the AIDS unit there, warned of the impact of the government's decision on the search for effective AIDS drugs. "It's going to slow the process down, no question about that," he said.

Dr. David Golde, who runs the unit at UCLA, said: "I don't know what's going to happen--they want us to see twice as many patients but they don't want to fund twice as many."

But he added: "I'm not in a panic yet. We're still negotiating."

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless against certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. It can also invade the central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders. It is commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse, through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles and by woman to fetus during pregnancy.

In this country, AIDS primarily has afflicted homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners. As of this week, a total of 51,361 Americans had contracted AIDS, of whom 28,683 had died.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World