Several developments are worth noting from the $32 million, five-year federal grant led by UNC professor David Margolis, M.D., to cure HIV by purging the virus hiding in the immune systems of patients on antiretroviral therapy (ART). Funded in July 2011 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the consortium involves 19 investigators at nine U.S. universities and a large pharmaceutical company, all of them pioneering research in HIV latency.
A study is underway to test the drug, Zolinza, from industry partner Merck, in a handful of people infected with both HIV and a form of skin cancer. The goal is to determine whether the drug can force HIV out of cells where it lies hidden from the effects of ART. Once out, ART can then target the HIV for eradication. Current ART can prevent the production of virtually any new HIV particle within an infected person. However, it is not a cure because trace amounts of the virus are preserved in a latent state. Researchers believe Zolinza may target an enzyme that maintains latency, called histone deacetylase, thereby unmasking this hidden pool of virus, making it vulnerable to ART and immune control.
At present, the FDA only approves use of Zolinza in patients in treatment for skin cancer. Thus, few patients nationwide qualify for this particular trial.
Still, Margolis explained, this is an important step along the continuum of research necessary to march toward eradication. Work continues in animal models as well. To date, the collaboratory has produced 11 publications. Details and links to articles are available on the website.
“This is difficult work, demanding that researchers work in uncharted territory, but we are already beginning to make good progress,” said Margolis.
Behind the scenes to assist in these endeavours, Margolis has hired a project manager, Stacey Wooden, formerly with Johns Hopkins University, to bring administrative support and expertise to the collaboratory. She began work January 31.
In another administrative change, the grant is now operating under a new name with a new website address. Originally known as the Martin Delaney Collaboratory, in honor of a noted HIV activist who died in 2009 and who was a co-author with Margolis and others of a seminal article calling for the formation of such an initiative, it is now called CARE: Collaboratory of AIDS Researchers for Eradication. The name was changed to distinguish this, the largest group, from two others funded by the NIH to explore differing approaches to curing AIDS.
The North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute administers the collaboratory grant. NC TraCS is UNC’s home to its NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards and one of 60 such institutions nationwide in a consortium working to accelerate the pace of biomedical research. Collaboratory universities along with UNC are Case Western Reserve University; Johns Hopkins University; University of California, Davis; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Diego; University of California, San Francisco; The Gladstone Institute; University of Minnesota, and the University of Utah.