In Search of the Holy Grail

By Lisa Chensvold

October 1, 2009 — J. Victor Garcia-Martinez, PhD, is a compact man with a broad, inexorable smile. He is brimming with energy and seems about to jump out of the chair in his new (but still empty) office. He marvels at how the heat and humidity of a North Carolina summer can turn even a short walk across campus into an endurance test, but then he looks out the window and talks about where to go cycling in the area.

victor garcia-martinez headshot in front of a bookcase

J. Victor Garcia-Martinez, PhD

He also talks about HIV and AIDS. Specifically, he talks about curing AIDS, which he calls the “holy grail” of infectious disease medicine. Garcia-Martinez has come to Chapel Hill to find it.

This fall Garcia-Martinez joins the faculty as professor of medicine in the UNC School of Medicine. Garcia-Martinez brings with him a team of about a dozen researchers, from from his former research lab at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas and from Japan and Denmark. They have set up a new lab in the new genetic medicine building at UNC.

Surprisingly, Garcia-Martinez is not at the center of this enterprise. The real star of his research lab is a mouse. And not just any mouse, a humanized mouse. Garcia-Martinez and his lab developed humanized mice in 2006. Because the mice have a fully functioning, fully human immune system, they have the potential to significantly impact medical research, not the least of which is HIV/AIDS.

A Top-funded Scientist

In 2007, Dr. Garcia-Martinez ranked 11th among scientists with the largest number of grants from the National Institutes of Health.
(cited in Nature, vol. 452, 20 March 2008)

The mice are known as “BLT” mice, for bone marrow, liver and thymus. Each mouse has a bit of human liver, thymus and stem cells, all from one donor. Already Garcia-Martinez and his team have successfully transmitted HIV rectally and more recently vaginally also showing that they could prevent transmission of HIV in female BLT mice that were given pre-exposure prophylaxis with antiretroviral drugs.

“We are so pleased to have someone of Dr. Garcia-Martinez’s stature join our program,” said Myron Cohen, MD, associate vice chancellor and director of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at UNC. “We believe his research is going to have a real impact on one of the most important issues of our time.”

And Garcia-Martinez is clearly thrilled to be at UNC, which is internationally recognized for its HIV/AIDS research and training programs (UNC was ranked #9 for HIV/AIDS in U.S. News & World Report’s 2009 ranking of top medical schools). “The people here are at the top of their game,” he says in the graceful lilt of his native Mexico. “The level of excellence is undeniable.”

Many top academics are attracted to UNC because of the high degree of cooperation and collaboration here, and Garcia-Martinez is no exception. He is eager to integrate his research into a multidisciplinary environment where “all aspects of HIV are considered.” “No one person will solve this problem [of HIV],” says Garcia-Martinez, who is also an investigator with the UNC Center for AIDS Research. “We need to incorporate as many people as possible.”

Coincidentally, one of Garcia-Martinez’s first collaborations at UNC involves a former colleague from Texas, David Margolis, MD, who is professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology at UNC.

“Victor has been at the cutting edge of HIV research for a long time,” Margolis said. “We were competing against the best universities in the world to recruit him. The support of the University and the environment created by the Center for AIDS Research and Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases made it happen.”

Tomonori Nochi and Rikke Olesen, members of Garcia-Martinez's research team

Margolis and Garcia-Martinez had neighboring offices in Texas, although they never collaborated on any research. Now the two are finding synergy. They have just been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and test new therapies which may eradicate HIV infection.

Despite recent advances in antiretroviral drug treatment, the HIV virus persists in a small number CD4+ T cells and is unrecognized by the immune system. It is because of these hidden reservoirs that no one with HIV infection has been cured. Margolis and Garcia-Martinez will develop drugs that can completely remove HIV from the body.

“Dr. Margolis provides the translational aspect to the work my lab has been doing,” Garcia-Martinez says. “Collaborations like these help to take the research from the laboratory level to the clinical level.” In other words, to the patients themselves.

At the same time he searches for a cure for AIDS, Garcia-Martinez is working with colleagues at UNC to develop “universal prevention of transmission of HIV,” because we don’t just need a cure; we need to stop the epidemic if we are to rid the world of AIDS once and for all.

That’s a tall order, for sure, but Garcia-Martinez doesn’t seem fazed. “I am totally optimistic,” he says.

He is also optimistic that Chapel Hill is the right place to do it. “When people say, ‘Welcome to UNC,’ they truly mean it.”

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