David Ho's big-news "breakthrough" sparks a research-rivals smackdown

When "eradication" star David Ho, MD, (a.k.a. Time's 1996 Man of the Year) announces a research "breakthrough," the media jumps -- and rival research giants get seriously steamed. Such was the stink after this fall's wonk-packed ICAAC (say it Ick! Ack!) confab, where Ho flew in for the day to announce that his Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center had ID'd alpha-defensins 1, 2 and 3 -- the secret natural proteins, said Ho and Co., that keep the 2 percent of HIVers known as long-term nonprogressors (LTNPs) from getting sick, even without meds. "Since 1986," said Ho, "when Jay Levy, MD, discovered that the CD8 cells of LTNPs release CD8 Antiviral Factor [CAF] to suppress HIV, the identity of CAF has remained a mystery. We showed that alpha-defensins are produced by stimulating the CD8 T cells of LTNPs and that they correlate with CAF." Someday they might even be made in a lab to keep HIVers from progressing -- though Ho was the first to admit that someday is far away.

No sooner had Ho's claim hogged headlines than a roster of research goliaths lined up to foul the finding of LTNP's much-coveted missing link, in a most unusual display of ill-dispute. "This is not it," Levy lobbed. "Our laboratory has never found defensins [that are] produced by CD8 cells." Robert Gallo, MD, boasted that his own lab would unveil a real CAF breakthrough "soon." Other naysayers offered that CAFs attack HIV after it enters the cell, but Ho's defensins apparently hit before; that the proteins may pack a puny anti-HIV punch; and that Ho's sample was a mere three LTNPs. (Even ever-diplomatic Bruce Walker, MD, allowed that "the results in larger numbers of patients might be different.")

Is the mudslinging a case of sour grapes over Ho, America's AIDS-research sweetheart? Or is it just desserts for what many perceive as Ho's overreaching? Neither scenario bodes well for HIVers awaiting a cure. Nor does this take by a longtime treatment insider: "It's infuriating that every time Aaron Diamond cranks out a press release, we're all supposed to go 'This must be it!' And if you name me, I'll kill you because my career will be over."