It was 30 years ago that actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, focusing the attention of the world on a disease then associated with gay men, one that came with social stigma multiplied by mystery. One thing that was not a mystery then was the certainty of the outcome for those with the disease: death.
Then another celebrity, Magic Johnson, in 1991 disclosed he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The basketball star has survived, thanks to advanced medical treatment, as have many others with HIV. Suppressing the development of AIDS has been the treatment of choice, thanks to a “cocktail” of drugs. And the disease no longer is viewed as concentrated exclusively in the gay community.
Now, medical science is venturing into research with a goal once thought impossible, namely a cure for AIDS. And appropriately, that research will be overseen and advanced by two organizations with the most expertise in the field: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described as a national center for AIDS research, and GlaxoSmithKline, the drug manufacturer that developed one of the first successful drugs to inhibit HIV, called AZT.
The university and the company, which will donate $20 million toward the research over the next five years, will join forces with other researchers under a new venture called Qura Therapeutics, to be housed on the UNC campus. It’s anticipated the project may take 30 years. (GSK’s North American headquarters is in Research Triangle Park.)
A ‘Manhattan Project’
Dr. Myron Cohen, head of UNC’s infectious diseases program and one of the world’s most prominent and respected researchers, pronounced the effort a “Manhattan Project-style effort to help find the cure for AIDS. The provocative idea is now mature enough for industry to say, ‘We want to be in this and make the discovery.’ ”
Partnerships between businesses and researchers aren’t new, but this one attacking a specific and sometimes controversial disease represents a major breakthrough because of the possibilities of drawing government and private funding on a stupendous scale. The university and the company also note that other scientists at other universities and other companies will be involved as well. UNC has a record in research on AIDS, having received tens of millions of dollars in research money from the National Institutes of Health in the last five years as part of a consortium of companies and universities.
For the GSK company, the investment over the long-term will be expensive, but finding a drug or drugs that actually cure the disease obviously would be profitable beyond comprehension. GSK’s HIV division, analysts say, is fast-growing, with revenue up 42 percent in the first quarter.
The research strategy on this project is called “shock and kill,” in which the goal is to find and destroy the human cells in which HIV is concealed.
Dr. David Margolis of UNC’s School of Medicine sees a steady path in research rather than a “breakthrough,” which is understandably what patients and the public would like. Margolis, another prominent UNC researcher who specializes in HIV, sees “incremental advances” as the likely steps toward a cure.
Once again, a Triangle university has drawn attention as a world leader in medical research. UNC has spectacular efforts under way for cancer treatments and other diseases, just as Duke University continues to gain international attention in a variety of areas including brain surgery and treatment of diseases of the eye.
This kind of high-profile research has other positives. It will perhaps bring more research businesses to the Research Triangle Park, and it serves to remind North Carolinians of the incredible work being done by a public university with a focus on some of the most important parts of its mission, a fact that has been dimmed sometimes as the state has gone through the political upheaval of the last few years.