Scientists are zeroing in on an AIDS breakthrough that until recently had been thought impossible: finding a cure.
On Monday, that goal will gain new impetus with the announcement of a new life sciences company in the Triangle, based on the growing confidence that scientists are within striking distance of an AIDS cure. The new venture, Qura Therapeutics, will be equally owned by UNC-Chapel Hill, a national hub for AIDS research, and GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s second-largest maker of HIV drugs, and will be housed on UNC’s campus.
Organizers say the development of the company and the UNC-based HIV Cure Center marks a major milestone in HIV research: The pharmaceutical industry’s willingness to invest in the development of intellectual property that could lead to a potential blockbuster drug. The national quest to find an AIDS cure is expected to take as long as three decades, and organizers are wagering the discovery will be based on research conducted by UNC and GSK scientists.
“This is a concerted, Manhattan Project-style effort to help find the cure for AIDS,” said UNC medicine professor Myron “Mike” Cohen, who heads UNC’s infectious diseases program. “The provocative idea is now mature enough for industry to say, ‘We want to be in this and make the discovery.’”
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UNC and GSK officials describe their effort as a catalyst to leverage government funding and private investment for what is shaping up as a colossal undertaking. GSK, which has its North American headquarters in Research Triangle Park, will contribute $20 million over five years.
The concept of the collaboration has been gestating for three years, with serious negotiations and legal reviews happening during the past year, said Zhi Hong, GSK’s senior vice president for infectious diseases.
Initially Qura will employ about 20 full-time scientists, Hong said. The company expects to play a leading role in the quest for a cure but could also end up being acquired by another drug developer, he said. The broader effort will involve teams of scientists at multiple universities and various companies across international boundaries.
“What I’m hoping for is you would have a finite treatment – maybe a combination of pills and injections – and it’s safe and it’s affordable,” Hong said.
Both North Carolina partners are well-positioned for the next phase of AIDS research. UNC is the home of a national collaborative project to eradicate AIDS under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. Last month, UNC netted $6.6 million in federal research grants to recruit human volunteers to test a combination of experimental medications designed to wipe out the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
One of GSK’s predecessor companies, Burroughs Wellcome, developed AZT, the first AIDS drug that inhibited the virus’s ability to replicate. GSK’s HIV division is “one of the brightest spots in the entire company,” said Argus Research analyst John Eade, noting that the division’s revenue grew by 42 percent in the first quarter.
An AIDS diagnosis was initially a death sentence, but in recent decades those infected with the virus have led normal, healthy lives as long as they take AIDS drugs. But the virus has proven impossible to eradicate from its human host.
The realization that AIDS could be wiped out was reawakened in 2009, when the world’s first infected patient was cured, although that cure required a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a genetic mutation.
Since then, scientists have published other promising developments that suggest some kind of cure – a long-term remission or total eradication – is on the horizon.
That first case was originally known as “the Berlin patient,” to protect the patient’s privacy. He later identified himself as Timothy Ray Brown of Las Vegas. Other patients who were thought to be cured but turned out to be in extended remission were cloaked as the “Visconti cohort,” the “Boston patients” and the “Mississippi baby.”
Brown’s cure was particularly dramatic because the procedure ran a high risk of death. Doctors have not been able to detect the presence of HIV in his body since the operation that nearly killed him along with the virus.
“I became delirious, nearly went blind, and was almost paralyzed,” Brown wrote in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses this year. “I eventually learned to walk again at a center for patients with extreme brain injuries.”
In 2011, the National Institutes of Health launched the AIDS eradication research program, over time designating more than $40 million to the UNC-led consortium, which includes Merck Research Laboratories and 11 universities.
GSK and UNC scientists will build on the consortium’s focus on an approach called “shock and kill” or “kick and kill.” The goal of this strategy is to seek and destroy the human cells in which the virus hides. Because it is so effective at concealing itself, HIV cannot be detected by the victim’s immune system as the virus bides its time for the patient to stop taking AIDS drugs or until the virus can mutate.
UNC is also home to one of the world’s leading researchers of this experimental technique, David Margolis, a professor in the School of Medicine. Margolis is the principal investigator of the NIH consortium.
“Efforts toward a cure will be less often marked by breakthroughs than by incremental advances,” Margolis wrote in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses this year.
“Eventually therapies may bear little resemblance to what is currently being tested or considered.”
At a glance
WHAT: The HIV Cure Center and the company Qura Therapeutics, a public-private partnership focused on discovering a cure for HIV/AIDS, announced Monday.
WHO: Joint owners are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and GlaxoSmithKline, the global pharmaceutical and health-care company.
HOW: Venture will focus on the latest scientific methods seen as key to curing HIV, known as "shock and kill."
WHERE: The HIV Cure Center will be on the UNC campus. Qura Therapeutics will handle the business portion.