Company accused of 'hyping' benefits of Aids drug: Research into AZT published this week is not new. Steve Connor reports

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WELLCOME, the manufacturer of the anti-Aids drug AZT, was accused yesterday of 'hyping' old research favourable to its product.

The 'new' research that hit the headlines yesterday had in fact ended in January 1992 and preliminary results were published at the Amsterdam Aids conference last July.

But Wellcome issued press releases on Wednesday saying that 'new data' from a 'new international study' demonstrated that AZT can benefit people infected with HIV who had not yet developed symptoms of Aids.

Full data from the study, led by Professor David Cooper of the University of New South Wales, is published in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, but the information is not substantially different to that released last year.

Its conclusions appear to contradict the much larger, more complete and more up-to-date Anglo-French 'Concorde' trial published in April, which demonstrated that AZT did not help asymptomatic HIV patients. Aids researchers said that many people would now be left confused about the benefits of the drug.

Professor Ian Weller, principal investigator on Concorde and a researcher at the Middlesex Hospital, said: 'Everybody I've spoken to is confused. This is an old study. The hype that's going on is amazing.'

He said the Concorde study found that AZT did not prevent the onset of Aids in people infected with HIV. Professor Cooper's study, known as EACG 020, concentrated on looking at progression to the early symptoms of pre-Aids, such as oral thrush, and a count of a certain type of white blood cell known as CD4.

The Concorde trial included more than 300 people who had developed Aids, whereas the EACG 020 study had just 16 Aids patients, making it a far less significant trial of whether the drug can prevent the onset of Aids.

Like the Concorde trial, the EACG 020 study found that AZT appeared to maintain high levels of CD4 blood cells, which have been implicated in helping to fend off Aids. Wellcome used this to support its belief that AZT can benefit HIV patients.

However, Professor Weller said that the Concorde trial made it clear that a rise in CD4 cells alone was not enough to prevent Aids in HIV patients. 'What this study (EACG 020) shows is what Concorde shows, that AZT increases CD4 counts. But what Concorde demonstrated is that this increase does not translate into the prevention of Aids and death.'

Wellcome said that Professor Cooper's study showed that AZT, when given early to HIV-positive patients, cut the chances of developing the symptoms and signs of more advanced 'HIV disease' by half.

Noel Hall, a spokesman for Wellcome, denied that the company was hyping old research. He said it was the first time the full data from the EACG 020 study had been published. 'What we're saying is that here is another study that ought to be put into the debate about when to start treatment against Aids.'

Although Wellcome had helped to finance the EACG 020 trial, the company refused to say how much it had given to Professor Cooper's group. Mr Hall said that Wellcome funds a large number of clinical trials, including the Concorde study.