HIV cure is goal of Glaxo-UNC Chapel Hill tie-up

GlaxoSmithKline PLC and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are jointly launching a research center that will focus on one of the areas of most intense interest in HIV/AIDS science: the search for a cure.

The public-private partnership brings together two long-standing players seeking to expand their reach in HIV research. Research scientists from both entities will work together in an HIV Cure center to be housed at UNC.

Glaxo and UNC said they would also jointly own a new company, Qura Therapeutics LLC, that will manage intellectual property and other business matters related to the partnership.

The $20 million investment by Glaxo over five years comes on the heels of the company's decision to retain its 78% stake in Viiv Healthcare, a business it owns jointly with Pfizer Inc. and Shionogi & Co. of Japan that develops drugs for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Taken together, the moves signal Glaxo's ambition to play a major role in a new generation of HIV therapies, Glaxo Chief Executive Andrew Witty said in an interview. "HIV is a very major part of this company," he said.

Glaxo was a leader in developing antiretroviral drugs around two decades ago, but then its HIV-drug development slowed. Mr. Witty said that Viiv's launch of two new drugs has exceeded expectations, persuading Glaxo to hold onto its stake, and that he is optimistic about prospects for new products. "We're going to be very ambitious to try to make a big difference," he said.

The partnership with UNC will help expand its opportunities to develop new products, he said. Scientists from Glaxo have been working toward an HIV cure over the past seven years, he said. The company has large research labs near UNC. "This is the obvious next step for us to go," he said.

For years, a cure to HIV was considered out of reach. But it has emerged as a potentially realistic goal over the past three or four years and attracted research funding, as scientists have identified possible approaches to eradicating the virus.

Still, there have been several setbacks along the way. The challenge of finding a cure and the complex therapies that likely will be needed for it underscore the importance of collaboration between researchers from academia and industry, said David Margolis, director of the new HIV Cure center and a professor of medicine at UNC.

Collaboration is also important for developing therapies that require combinations of drugs or approaches--a problem that has plagued the development of drugs for HIV treatment and other diseases, he said. The components have to be developed and tested together, he said. "It's not clear how one company would do that," he said. Dr. Margolis also leads another HIV-cure research collaboration involving academic institutions.

AIDS researchers have known for two decades that HIV goes dormant, hiding in so-called latent reservoirs in immune-system cells where it can't be affected by antiretroviral drugs. UNC has led one potential strategy for a cure in which a drug is used to flush the virus from its dormant state, making it a target for drug therapy.

Dr. Margolis said that strategy is "extremely promising," but that the cure center will explore others. "We have to have a broad approach," he said.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the hope is that the partnership will expand, inviting in additional collaborators. "I see this as us really putting our muscle behind a pressing issue," she said, calling an HIV cure "an extraordinary scientific challenge."

In 2013, about 35 million people world-wide were infected with HIV, and 1.5 million people world-wide died of AIDS-related causes, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

Write to Betsy McKay at [email protected]

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