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A. Patients Beat Doctors to the Punch

Narrator: This is Science Today. Many years ago the sedative thalidomide gained a terrible reputation when it caused tragic birth defects. Since then, though, it's been used safely for a number of illnesses. Now there's evidence that it can defeat AIDS wasting -- catastrophic weight loss among people with AIDS. Dr. Morris Schambelan of the University of California, San Francisco, who's one of the doctors testing the drug nationally, says that experimental AIDS drugs often reach patients before they can be tested by doctors.

Schambelan: It's a pretty powerful network for getting drugs from Europe and from other parts of the world where the controls are not as exacting as they are in this country.

Narrator: AIDS wasting seems to be caused by immune system hormones called cytokines. Thalidomide apparently blocks cytokines, permitting weight gain. Schambelan cautions that it's always risky to tamper with the immune system, which is why the drug is being tested on AIDS patients scientifically.

Schambelan: We have an immune response for a purpose, and so if we're blocking that I think we have to worry about whether that's going to have a down side as well as a positive side.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Steve Tokar.