A protein building block that plays a vital role in immune function has been found to substantially suppress growth of the AIDS virus in the test tube, scientists reported Thursday.

The finding suggests drugs based on the substance, called glutathione, may hinder or even prevent the spread of disease in people infected with the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, was based on research conducted by Dr. Alton Meister, chairman of the biochemistry department at Cornell University Medical College, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

Since 1989, researchers have known that HIV-infected people have decreased blood levels of lymphocytes, the crucial disease-fighting cells of the immune system, and glutathione, an amino acid essential for production of disease-fighting antibodies and activation of lym-phocytes.

In their study, Meister and Fauci found that when they administered glutathione to HIV-infected cells grown in the test tube, virus reproduction decreased 80 percent to 90 percent. Furthermore, the greater the dose of glutathione, the bigger the effect on HIV suppression.

The doctors said they now plan to begin testing the effect of giving glutathione to HIV-infected people. However, the researchers cautioned that they have not found a cure for AIDS.

"AIDS is certainly not just a question of glutathione deficiency or of simply killing off the virus by giving HIV-infected persons glutathione," Meister said.

But Meister added that basic glutathione deficiency "could be a contributing factor to the disease" and that therapy with glutathione may be a useful strategy in limiting the disease's progress.

"There is a basic logic behind our belief, for we know that glutathione plays a major role in immune response," Meister said.


(Additional information)

Aids on the rise

More than 9,000 new cases of AIDS were reported to the World Health Organization in January, bringing the total to 323,378 since the United Nations agency began keeping statistics in 1980, WHO said Friday.

New figures from Africa, Europe and the Americas were responsible for the increase.

The United States, which reports regularly on its statistics, continued to be the most affected country, with 154,791 reported cases as of January 31 - the same number reported by U.S. authorities at the end of December.