Carolina, GSK partner to accelerate search for HIV cure

Ever since the first HIV/AIDS patient was admitted into UNC Hospitals in 1981, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been at the forefront of research working to eradicate the condition and prevent its transmission.

May 11, the University made another step forward in its efforts.

During a brief ceremony at Marsico Hall, the University officially announced the formation of a jointly owned company with GlaxoSmithKline that will be dedicated to finding a cure for HIV/AIDS. In a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership, the two organizations will combine resources to launch the HIV Cure center and Qura Therapeutics.

“The big idea of this venture is clear: curing HIV/AIDS,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “It will require a fundamental shift in paradigm, a shift that will integrate both new research approaches and durable alliances of many partners in order to sustain the effort required for all time.”

GSK, a research-based pharmaceutical and healthcare company, will invest $4 million into the partnership each year during the five-year research agreement. UNC-Chapel Hill will provide more than 19,000 square feet of laboratory space on its medical campus to house the HIV Cure center and Qura. The University will also fund the customization of the space, including equipment and infrastructure costs. Lab renovations are expected to be finished in the fall, allowing GSK researchers to work on-campus with their Carolina partners.

With UNC-Chapel Hill consistently ranked in the top 10 AIDS specialty programs by the U.S. News & World Report, Carolina scientists are already working toward an HIV cure; 12 cure-related clinical studies have been done Carolina over the last five years. But the partnership with GSK will give scientists access to more research and development capabilities to test for a cure.

The goal of the partnership is to allow the world’s best scientists to make faster progress than they would alone.

“We believe partnership is the way to solve the problems of the world, the country and of the state,” said North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. “If we don’t work together and combine all the different brains, we will not solve the problems that are so complex in today’s world.”

Based in the Genetic Medicine Building, the HIV Cure center will focus exclusively on finding a cure for HIV/AIDS and will serve as a catalyst for additional partners and public funding that will help eradicate the disease while also attracting talented researches from around the world.

“This is not an easy challenge by any stretch,” said Sir Andrew Witty, CEO of GSK. “This is going to take years, it may take generations for scientists to achieve this. … This is a very difficult mission that we’re setting off to try and achieve. I am incredibly encouraged.”

Led by 50 scientists including at least five full-time employees of GSK’s HIV Performance Unit, the HIV Cure center will use a new scientific approach called “shock and kill.” The approach makes the hidden HIV virus visible to the immune system and allows the patient’s immune system to clear the virus.

“The road ahead of us will be long and the challenges are many,” said Zhi Hong, head of GSK’s Infectious Diseases Therapy Area Unit. “For every 10 steps forward, we will probably have some steps back ­— perhaps nine steps back— but we most focus on that positive momentum and that will bring us closer to our final goal that is to cure all patients with HIV.”

Qura Therapeutics will handle the business side of the partnership including intellectual property, commercialization, manufacturing and governance. UNC-Chapel Hill and GSK will evenly split royalties from any commercial product that results from Qura.

“This partnership marries the absolute best of what we do at a America’s leading public universities — world-class research and a deep, deep commitment to serving the public with the best of the private sector,” Folt said.

Hong and Matt Fajack, UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration, will lead the organization as the sole members of the Board of Directors for Qura Therapeutics. Carolina’s David Margolis, professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology, and epidemiology, will serve as scientific director of the HIV Cure center and will have decision-making authority on the daily planning and resources utilization within the center, within the bounds of the overall business plan approved by the SRB on behalf of Qura Therapeutics and the Qura Therapeutics Board.

GSK and the University entered into a five-year partnership, but Witty anticipates several extensions as the teams work to find a cure. The organization predicts it will take at least 15 to 20 years to produce an applicable HIV cure.

“Tomorrow when we get to work, the mountain is pretty steep,” Margolis said. “It’s time to get to work.”

Click here for the news release.

Click here for playback of the full event.

By Brandon Bieltz, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published May 11, 2015