Any Way You Slice It

A leading researcher unsheathes a new weapon in the fight against AIDS

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DESPITE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS AND THE EFFORTS OF some of the best minds in medicine, the search for an AIDS vaccine has yet to yield an effective cure. Now one of the world's leading AIDS researchers wants to try a new weapon: a "molecular knife" that disables the virus by slicing up its genetic code.

Flossie Wong-Staal, who rose to prominence at the U.S. National Cancer ) Institute, reported last week that a hairpin-shape enzyme derived from a plant virus has shown a remarkable affinity for the virus that causes AIDS. Like the chemical scissors used in gene splicing, the hairpin enzyme hooks onto the virus' RNA and snips it into pieces. Introduced into a test-tube culture of AIDS-infected blood cells, it slowed the spread of the virus 70% to 90%.

Safety tests on actual AIDS patients won't begin before next year, says Wong-Staal, now at the University of California, San Diego. But if it works for one strain of AIDS, it could be easily modified to work for another -- or any other viral disease, for that matter, from hepatitis to herpes.