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Mystery microbe may cause 'AIDS cancer.' (Kaposi's sarcoma)

Mystery microbe may cause 'AIDS cancer'

Kaposi's sarcoma -- an otherwise rare malignancy that frequently strikes AIDS patients--may be caused by a sexually transmitted microbe, probably a virus, according to two reports in the Jan. 20 LANCET. The new research has spurred an intensified search for the unidentified organism.

The cause of Kaposi's sarcoma has long puzzled AIDS researchers, who noted in the early 1980s that homosexual men with AIDS had a high risk of developing this disease, which affects the cells lining blood vessel walls and shows up as purple skin blotches. Some suggested it was triggered by recreational use of nitrite inhalants, called poppers. But the LANCET reports reject that theory and provide strong evidence implicating an infectious microorganism as the culprit.

In one study, Valerie Beral, Thomas A. Peterman and their colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found Kaposi's sarcoma far more common among people who developed AIDS after having sex with homosexual or bisexuals than among people who became infected with the AIDS virus (HIV) after exposure to infected blood. For example, 21 percent of homosexual men with AIDS in this study had Kaposi's sarcoma, while the malignancy struck only 1 percent of the AIDS patients with hemophilia, an inherited disorder that requires transfusions of blood-clotting factors. Many hemophiliacs got infected with HIV in the early 1980s, before HIV was shown to spread via contaminated blood.

Like HIV, the mysterious microbe that seems to trigger Kaposi's sarcoma appears to be spread sexually; unlike HIV, it does not seem generally present in blood, Peterman says.

In a separate report, Alvin E. Friedman-Kien of the New York University Medical Center and his colleagues suggest some homosexual men without HIV infection can nonetheless become infected with an agent that causes Kaposi's sarcoma. The authors detail six reports of homosexual men who had Kaposi's sarcoma but showed no hint of HIV infection, even in a highly sensitive test for detecting HIV.

Friedman-Kien says he suspects the agent causing Kaposi's sarcoma was a virus prevalent in Africa and the Caribbean at about the same time HIV gained a foothold there. He and his colleagues are "avidly pursuing" its identity.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 3, 1990
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