A private appeal from the archbishop of Los Angeles for the archdiocese's 2,900 nuns and priests to volunteer for tests of an experimental AIDS vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine pioneer, was "premature" and made without Salk's knowledge, a key project researcher said Sunday.
Dr. Alexandra Levine of USC Medical School in Los Angeles also said the appeal misstated the types of volunteers who will be sought for the project, which has yet to be approved by California health officials. Only nuns, who "are at essentially no risk of acquiring AIDS," will be sought, not priests, Levine said.
The appeal for volunteers from the clergy was issued in early February in letters from Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and Dr. Brian E. Henderson, director of USC's Kenneth Norris Jr. Comprehensive Cancer Center. It is the latest twist in the ongoing trials of Salk's controversial approach to AIDS prevention and treatment.
Mahony wrote a cover letter informing priests and nuns that Henderson was seeking 10 volunteers to test the vaccine. Henderson's letter discussed the vaccine project and its risk and included a consent form.
"Dr. Salk and I were unaware (until contacted by reporters) that these letters had gone out and believe they are premature," said Levine, who discussed the situation with Salk on Sunday. Salk is the founder of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego.
"A plan to send letters seeking volunteers from the clergy had been agreed upon," Levine said. "But we had no intention of sending the letters until after all of the necessary approvals for the study had been granted."
Archdiocese spokesman Monsignor Stephen E. Blaire stressed at a news conference Sunday that no pressure has been applied on priests or nuns to volunteer.
Mahony, interviewed in Rome by the Associated Press on Sunday, said that Henderson told him at their last meeting a few weeks ago that about six nuns and one or two priests had been in contact with him.
Asked if priests and nuns had been contacted because they are unlikely to have been exposed to the AIDS virus--most commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse or dirty hypodermic needles--Mahony said, "No."
"That's not the reason Dr. Henderson asked me nor why I sent the letter," Mahony said. "(You're) looking for people who would want to volunteer for something that could be very risky. . . . You're really looking for people who have a commitment to humankind and willingness to take risks to benefit others."
Mahony said he had issued the appeal because "it's something the church is always interested in, finding some ways to counter serious illness, and certainly HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a serious illness in our times. It's just a basic Christian human response."
Henderson was unavailable for comment.
Levine said she could not explain why Henderson, head of the research project, had sent out his letter without informing Salk and Levine, who are working with him.
Salk's AIDS treatment is known as "HIV-immunogen." The immunogen is designed to boost the immune system and make it more resistant to the effects of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, the cause of AIDS. The treatments are prepared by stripping AIDS virus particles of the envelope proteins that surround them and rendering the particles non-infectious through the use of chemicals and radiation. The particles are then injected into muscle or skin.
Some AIDS experts have voiced concern about the safety of the HIV immunogen. They cite the possibility that it might be contaminated by live AIDS virus, a possibility that Salk and Levine believe is highly unlikely.
So far, HIV-immunogen has been tested at USC in about 100 HIV-infected individuals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved national tests for an additional 1,000 individuals, Levine said.
Recently, the USC researchers sought permission from the state Department of Health Services to expand the tests to include 10 uninfected individuals who are also at very low risk of AIDS infection. State officials are still considering the request.