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Breakthrough

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DAVID BRUDNOY WAS ABOUT TO GO ON THE AIR WITH HIS NIGHTly radio program last May when the phone rang. Greg Robbins, one of his doctors, was on the line with good news: Tests showed drastically reduced HIV in his system. But far from being a routine check, the test result was part of an astonishing new chapter in the history of AIDS. Two years ago the Boston talk show host was close to death from AIDS-related diseases. Today he is in the vanguard of men and women being treated with a potent new therapy that can leave their once HIV-infected blood showing virtually no sign of the virus.

At first, Brudnoy, 56, hardly reacted. “It was a minute or two before I had to go on the air,” he recalls, “so I just said, ‘Gee, that’s great. I gotta go.’ ” Then he plunged ahead with his five-hour show of libertarian banter on WBZ that reaches listeners in 38 states. The “whooping and hollering” came later, he says. “People run into me on the street and say, ‘Gee, you look great. What happened?’ I feel a very strong sense of a second act that I’m in now and that I’m gonna get a shot at doing my life better than I’ve done it up to now. I’m less willing to kid myself about my medical problems.”

Brudnoy’s return to health is all the more stunning because it is the result of a therapy that could transform a death sentence into a manageable disease for thousands of people who have AIDS or are infected with HIV. In trials in the U.S. involving 7,000 patients, some still ongoing, HIV has been lowered to undetectable levels in the blood of more than 90 percent.

The heartening news about the therapy, which involves treating patients with a new class of medicines known as protease inhibitors, was revealed this summer at the International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver, B.C. According to researchers, when a unit of HIV prepares to replicate, it grows strands of protein that contain all the elements needed for a new virus. It also creates an enzyme essential to reproduction called protease, whose role is to cut these strands into sections, each with its own function. Protease inhibitors block the enzyme’s activity, preventing the virus from reproducing. Combining the inhibitors with two AZT-like drugs produces a lethal concoction that seems to shut down the virus’s ability to replicate and then form drug-resistant mutants.

Even for patients who respond to the therapy, it has drawbacks. Pills must be taken at precise intervals, and they are expensive. A year’s supply can cost up to $20,000, which is clearly beyond the means of many HIV-infected people. Then, too, researchers have cautioned restraint. As yet no one knows whether a virus that is undetectable in the bloodstream could be hiding in brain cells or other organs of the body, or will reappear in patients who are taken off the drug cocktail. “The news is very good, but we’ve got to be restrained in our optimism until clinical experience over a period of years proves that in the long run this is beneficial,” notes Dr. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

So far, though, the approach offers a heretofore unimagined hope. Brudnoy, a former college history professor who has been a popular Boston radio personality since 1976, tested positive for HIV in 1988 but hid his condition until October ’94, when he was hospitalized. He returned to the airwaves in January ’95 and, in an emotional broadcast, spoke about his homosexuality and having AIDS. He told listeners that at one point doctors at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, where he had been a patient, had even considered removing him from life support. Brudnoy’s friends persuaded doctors to keep trying.

When interviewed by PEOPLE in January ’95, the 6′ Brudnoy weighed a gaunt 135 lbs. Last June, when he started on the new therapy, his HIV count was raging. By September not a trace of the virus could be detected. Today, Brudnoy works out at a gym four times a week and weighs in at a pumped-up 180. With testosterone shots boosting his appetite, Brudnoy, says Kevin Myron, his producer of nine years, “looks the best that I’ve ever seen him.” And the news keeps getting better. Three weeks ago he learned that his heart, weakened during his brush with death, was functioning normally.

He has noticed no side effects from the medication and is in perpetual overdrive. Dr. Deborah Cotton advises him “to slow down pretty much all the time,” she says, but believes that “for David, working as hard as he does actually contributes to his good health.” Besides the broadcast from his Back Bay condo, he reviews up to six movies for a Boston-area weekly, and since January ’95 he has returned to teaching a class in media criticism at Boston University.

Brudnoy, once sexually promiscuous, says he hasn’t had a committed relationship since 1966. “I used to think when I was younger, ‘How can priests be celibate?’ Now I understand—you devote yourself to other things. I refer to myself as an unwilling monk.”

In June he started the David Brudnoy Fund for AIDS Research, and he is awaiting year-end publication of his autobiography, completed in February after six months of intense work. “I wrote it fast because I thought this would be my last book,” he says. “Now, unless I get hit by a truck, I think it won’t be—and that’s a nice feeling.”

EMILY MITCHELL

STEPHEN SAWICKI in Boston