Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been awarded a $32 million, five-year federal grant to develop ways to cure people with HIV by purging the virus hiding in the immune systems of patients taking antiretroviral therapy.

Tackling this latent virus is considered key to a cure for AIDS, the school says.

“This is the first major funding initiative ever to focus on HIV eradication, and we at UNC are excited to lead this collaboration of an incredible group of 19 investigators from across the country,” said Dr. David Margolis, professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology in the UNC School of Medicine and principal investigator of this effort.

Although individuals infected with HIV may effectively control virus levels with antiretroviral drugs and maintain relatively good health, the virus is never fully eliminated from the cells and tissues it has infected. Researchers need to better understand where these reservoirs of HIV are located, how they are established and maintained, and how to eliminate them.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) grant will be administered by the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute at UNC and will be shared among researchers at nine U.S. universities, all of them pioneering researchers in HIV latency. Co-funding is also being provided by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

The UNC-led consortium will be one of three groups funded by NIAID under its Martin Delaney Collaboratory initiative. The UNC-led effort will undertake more than a dozen research projects to discover how the virus can remain dormant and virtually invisible, identify drugs and treatments capable of ridding the body of persistent infection, and evaluate these new strategies in relevant animal models so that they can be translated into people.

“This award will fundamentally change the way in which we look for a cure for AIDS,” said Victor Garcia-Martinez, a UNC professor of medicine who is involved in the project.

Delaney was an internationally recognized AIDS activist who died in 2009. Delaney championed the concept of accelerating progress toward a cure for HIV infection through a public-private partnership involving government, academia and industry.

The UNC-led collaboratory also includes an important industrial partner Merck Research Laboratories, in Whitehouse Station, N.J. Merck has an outstanding track record in the development of small molecule drugs and other therapies that target viral reservoirs. Merck Research Laboratories will be receiving no federal funds for their contribution to this research. 

The other universities involved in the UNC-led collaboratory are Case Western Reserve University; Johns Hopkins University; University of California, Davis; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Diego; The Gladstone Institute; University of California, San Francisco; University of Minnesota, and the University of Utah.

The NC TraCS Institute at UNC is one of 60 medical research institutions across the country working together as a national consortium to improve the way biomedical research is conducted. The consortium is funded through the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA), led by the National Center for Research Resources, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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