The U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration’s recent approval of interferon—a 30-year-old drug—to treat certain patients with AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma—a disease first recognized some 10 years ago—no doubt surprised many, scientists and nonscientists alike. What’s new about interferon? And why have clinicians returned to it with such enthusiasm?

Interferon did indeed hit the headlines 20 to 30 years ago. But then it proved a considerable disappointment—not least because insufficient quantities were available for detailed study and clinical evaluation. Only today are we becoming aware of its real potential in disease treatment. This is a result of a massive burgeoning of research into interferon production and its action that has occurred over the past 15 years (see accompanying bar graph). Data from the Institute for Scientific Information’s SciSearch, the online version of the Science Citation Index, for the years 1974 through 1988, illustrate the change dramatically. During that period,...

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