‘A rather remarkable feat’

Research technician Katherine Sholtis works in the Margolis Lab of the HIV Cure Center in the Genetic Medicine Research Building.

Research technician Katherine Sholtis works in the Margolis Lab of the HIV Cure Center in the Genetic Medicine Research Building on November 15, 2018, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

HIV treatments have come a long way, but tens of millions around the world remain infected and need daily antiretroviral therapy – and unless new discoveries are made, they will need it for the rest of their lives.

David Margolis, M.D., Richard Dunham, Ph.D., and all of the scientists working at the UNC HIV Cure Center are tackling this very issue.

Margolis is the Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology & Immunology, and Epidemiology, and the director of the HIV Cure Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Dunham is director of HIV Cure for ViiV Healthcare. Margolis and Dunham work closely together at the Cure Center, a partnership where academic researchers and industry scientists work side by side in the same lab on Carolina’s campus with one goal in mind: Find a cure for HIV.

Five years ago, UNC-Chapel Hill and GlaxoSmithKline announced the creation of a center dedicated to curing HIV and the formation of a jointly owned company, Qura Therapeutics. Since the initial announcement, ViiV Healthcare, an international pharmaceutical company focused on HIV, has taken ownership of GSK’s HIV research portfolio. This spring, ViiV and Carolina announced that they have signed a second five-year $20 million contract to continue their groundbreaking research to find a cure.

“We are dealing with the most difficult problem in HIV research: how to get the virus out of latency so it can be eliminated and people can be truly cured,” Margolis said.

It’s a challenge, but Margolis said their current approach to a cure “sounds sort of simple.” When people are on therapy, the virus is latent, meaning there’s effectively no active virus spreading around in their bodies because the current antiretroviral drugs completely block that process.

“We are thinking of treating people who are on therapy, where there’s no virus spreading, but there is virus sleeping dormant in a few cells,” he explained.

In a nutshell, researchers are trying to push the virus out of hiding so it can be recognized by the immune system and eliminated.

Both Dunham and Margolis hope to find a cure for HIV so that people with HIV don’t have to be on treatment for the rest of their lives.

Because of this interdisciplinary collaboration that brings together the strengths of industry science and world-class academic research, the Cure Center is closer than ever to achieving their goal. The team has tested a new way to expose the hidden virus and recently published in the journal Nature that this new strategy drives the virus out of hiding to an unprecedented degree.

The stage is now set to develop a novel medicine to advance to human trials.

“This is a rather remarkable feat in such a short amount of time,” Margolis said. “Everyone here has been dedicated to making this partnership successful. That means working together to progress new curative approaches from the lab to the clinic as fast as possible.”

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