Researchers say cocaine has been found to speed the growth of the AIDS virus in the test tube, prompting concern it could do the same in drug users.

Researchers with the University of Minnesota Medical School at Minneapolis took peripheral blood mononuclear cells and exposed them to doses of cocaine. The cells are a primary target for the AIDS virus.The virus was found to grow as much as three times faster in the cocaine-laced tests.

"In persons who are infected, if they continue to abuse this drug it may have a significant impact on the development of clinical AIDS," said Dr. Ronald Schut.

Schut presented the findings at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology.

While about 150,000 AIDS cases have been reported in the United States, researchers say an additional million or more Americans are infected and at risk of developing AIDS.

The question now for researchers is whether drug use somehow modifies the immune system to enhance growth of the AIDS, or HIV, virus.

"The initial in-vitro (test-tube) studies suggest that it's possible," Schut said.