WASHINGTON _ A group of prominent AIDS researchersThursday told the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to improve thefocus and coordination of federal AIDS research by taking a numberof initiatives including improving collaborations betweenpharmaceutical and biotech companies to develop new classes ofdrugs as well as safe and effective vaccines.

The expert panel said that while AIDS research has made substantialprogress, the field needs more emphasis on vaccine development, aninfusion of new investigators and augmented basic research to betterunderstand the human immune system.

The report was prepared by an independent panel of scientistsrepresenting several disciplines. Arnold Levine, professor ofmolecular biology at Princeton University in New Jersey, chaired thepanel. Roy Vagelos, former chairman of Merck & Co. Inc., ofWhitehouse Station, N.J., was the industry representative. HIVcommunity representatives also were included on the panel.

NIH Director Harold Varmus appointed the group in February 1995to review the progress of NIH's Office of AIDS Research and torecommend steps to move research forward.

In order to facilitate research into an AIDS vaccine, the panelrecommended that the entire AIDS vaccine research program at theNIH be restructured. An office should be organized that would bridgeall AIDS vaccine development efforts at the NIH and be chaired by a"distinguished non-government scientist . . . to provide leadership,direction and oversight to a comprehensive AIDS vaccine effort."

A national AIDS vaccine task force should be established within theWhite House Office of National AIDS Policy, the panelrecommended, to be responsible for coordinating all government-sponsored vaccine programs.

To refocus the AIDS drug discovery effort, the panel recommendedthat the NIH stop duplicating many of the research efforts nowsponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. However, the expertsfound marked differences in the quality of research supported byfederal AIDS funds. One notable success was the structural study ofHIV molecular targets, according to the panel's report. But the NIH'sDevelopmental Therapeutics Program was deemed replicative of thepharmaceutical industry. The panel recommended that its funding besharply decreased.

The need to integrate all adult clinical trials into a single network alsowas recommended. "There has been overlap and, in some instances,unnecessary competition between these diverse programs that arefunded by different institutes with different self-defined missions.The scientific productivity of the independent clinical trial efforts hasbeen quite variable, as has been the level of support and enthusiasmfrom the funding institutes," according to the report.

The panel pointed to several problems in integrating informationamong the federally sponsored AIDS clinical trials, including dataexchange that has been hampered by lack of standardized data basesand "similarly, the lack of an organized repository for pathogens andclinical specimens from well-characterized participants in trials hasinhibited collaboration with basic scientists and epidemiologists."

The integrated network was envisioned by the advisory panel as "oneof concentric layers of research expertise and capability." Thenetwork would be funded using a master contract that would "permitrapid expansion of the network's research units as the scientific needdictates. Such a mechanism would ensure access to sufficientnumbers of patients with diverse demographic characteristics forPhase IV and some Phase III trials," according to the report. n

-- Michele L. Robinson Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.