COLLABORATION

UNH-pharmaceutical company cement commitment to finding HIV cure

SOURCE: JALAA MAREY/AFP
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and ViiV Healthcare are joining forces to accelerate the search for a HIV cure.

Back in the 80s, a positive HIV diagnosis spelled “death sentence” for individuals.

But the turn of the millennium has seen scientists and researchers making strides in the field. Today, HIV-positive patients enjoy a better quality of life compared to others before them from a decade ago.

Furthering the cause include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and pharmaceutical company ViiV Healthcare. Both parties have recently announced a five-year, US$20 million renewal of a public-private research partnership solely focused on discovering a cure for HIV.

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Their collaboration dates back to 2015; it brings together the skills of academic and pharmaceutical industry researchers to create a deeper understanding of how HIV works and develop a new approach to eradicating HIV that could be tested in humans for the first time in the next few years, said UNC.

Deborah Waterhouse, ViiV Healthcare CEO, said: “Five years ago when we announced this innovative collaboration, we were inspired by the possibility that with the right resources and research teams, we would be able to make a meaningful impact towards a cure for HIV. 

“Although there is still much left to do, this public-private partnership is making a difference. We are excited to continue this partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill for another five years and look forward to the contribution of our unique skills and shared commitment to finding a cure for HIV.”

Under the terms of the agreement, ViiV Healthcare and UNC-Chapel Hill scientists will continue to work side by side at the HIV Cure Center, which was created at the start of the collaboration five years ago and located at the UNC School of Medicine. 

UNC and ViiV Healthcare will also continue to jointly own Qura Therapeutics, the company created in 2015 to manage the intellectual property, commercialisation, manufacturing and governance needs of the collaboration.

One giant leap for mankind?

HIV cure
This public-private collaboration brings academic and pharmaceutical research scientists together to cure individuals diagnosed with HIV. Source: Jalaa Marey/AFP

Research currently underway through the HIV Cure Center and Qura Therapeutics is centered on the concept of “induce and reduce.” 

UNC said this strategy is first focused on identifying the copies of HIV that may be hiding in human immune cells while the virus is suppressed through antiretroviral therapy. Once identified, the virus is driven out of hiding (induce) so that it can be eliminated (reduce). This therapeutic approach strives to specifically affect the virus while minimising the impact on the body beyond the hidden infected cells. 

Bringing the virus out of hiding is often seen as the greatest obstacle to curing HIV infection as these hidden, HIV-infected cells can persist despite decades of antiretroviral treatment, and these findings mark significant progress towards a cure for HIV.

“Without the Qura partnership we would not have been able to get this far, this fast,” said David Margolis, MD, Director of the UNC HIV Cure Center and Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology & Immunology, and Epidemiology at the UNC School of Medicine. 

“We have accomplished a great deal in less than five years and hope to accomplish a good deal more in the years to come to help people living with HIV around the world.”

A step towards HIV cure

HIV is a major public health challenge.

Data from HIV. gov – the US federal government’s leading source for information about HIV – said there were approximately 37.9 million people across the globe with HIV/AIDS in 2018, while an estimated 1.7 million individuals worldwide became newly infected with HIV in 2018.

High-profile individuals have helped catapult the disease into the spotlight.

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In the 80s, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury reportedly kept his HIV-positive diagnosis secret for years before announcing his diagnosis to the public shortly before dying due to AIDS-related complications. 

More recently, in 2015, American actor Charlie Sheen made headlines when he announced his HIV-positive diagnosis.

HIV is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases, said HIV.gov. The virus is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex or through sharing injection drug equipment.

HIV can lead to a condition called AIDS.

Despite celebrities becoming poster boys for the disease, scientists are the unsung heroes who have come a long way in improving treatments for diagnosed individuals. Despite that, there’s still a long way to go on the road to finding an HIV cure.