The race to discover a cure for AIDS, for years an elusive hope among doctors and patients, took a leap into uncharted territory Monday with the announcement of a jointly-owned venture by GlaxoSmithKline and UNC-Chapel Hill.
The two founding partners describe their new Chapel Hill research company, Qura Therapeutics, as a unique venture that will combine the intellectual firepower of academia with the focus of private industry. The company is being structured to minimize the conflicts and mistrust that can plague such cross-cult ural marriages.
For the time being, Qura will remain an unorthodox creation run by two board members – one from UNC and the other from GSK – and conspicuously lacking a CEO. The “virtual company,” equally owned by GSK and UNC, will prioritize funding and research with another newly created entity, The HIV Cure Center, and will also oversee the intellectual property generated by GSK and UNC scientists.
“You shouldn’t engage in these missions unless you’re seriously committed to doing this for a long time,” said Andrew Witty, CEO of London-based GSK, who was in town for the announcement. “This is going to require a high tolerance for disappointments and setbacks.”
GSK is contributing $20 million over five years to the project, while UNC is contributing physical lab space on its campus for several dozen scientists. One of the draws for the university is the elevated profile to recruit the world's top researchers in HIV, said Zhi Hong, GSK’s senior vice president for infectious diseases.
Hong will be one of Qura’s board members; the other will be UNC’s chief financial officer, Matthew Fajack.
The research will be overseen by UNC medical professor David Margolis, a longtime AIDS researcher. He said bridging the cultural gap will be a difficult challenge, noting that academics tend to be individualists focused on publishing incremental results, while private industry reins in scientists’ personal research interests to focus on a collective mission.
GSK is the world’s second-largest developer and supplier of AIDS drugs. The company’s predecessor, Burroughs Wellcome, developed AZT, the world’s breakthrough AIDS drug, in the 1980s.
UNC is the home of a national collaborative project to eradicate AIDS under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health and oversees more than $40 million in federal funding toward the undertaking.
The two partners will focus on an eradication strategy called “kick and kill” or “shock and kill.”
The medical goal is to discover which cells are infected by HIV and target them for elimination. It is not possible today because the virus is able to camouflage itself in cells without detection as long as the patient takes AIDS medications and otherwise leads a normal, healthy life.