While classes at UNC are on a limited schedule in the summer, investigators in the Division of Infectious Diseases have operated at full steam publishing HIV treatment and prevention studies in prestigious medical journals and securing $23 million worth of federal funding for HIV cure research.
Worldwide, 37 million people are living with HIV. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) selected CARE, the Collaboratory of AIDS Researchers for Eradication, which is based at UNC, for refunding this July after a competitive application process. The NIH first funded CARE in 2011 through its Martin Delaney Collaboratory program for HIV cure research. The program was the first major funding initiative to focus on eradication of HIV from the body and was named in honor of internationally recognized HIV activist Martin Delaney. The UNC-led group includes partners at other universities around the country focusing on the “kick and kill” strategy for curing HIV. This approach involves waking up the latent or sleeping virus in the body and boosting the immune system to then recognize and clear the virus. CARE will continue to study this strategy for eradicating HIV, bolstered by what the researchers have learned over the past five years.
In other CARE news, its Principal Investigator David Margolis, MD, Professor of Medicine at UNC, and J. Victor Garcia, PhD, Professor of Medicine at UNC, joined two other CARE colleagues to write a perspective in the journal Science. The article describes how a better understanding of HIV latency is critical to eradicating the virus from the body.
“We have learned a lot, and made advances, and we hope that we now have the tools to begin to chip away at the persistent virus that remains in patients, and requires them to maintain lifelong antiviral drug therapy,” Margolis said.
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The final results of the landmark HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) 052 study were released in July proving treatment as prevention of HIV. Researchers found a 93 percent reduction of HIV transmission when the HIV-infected person in a serodiscordant couple started antiretroviral therapy at a higher CD4 cell count. The study was led by UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases Director Myron Cohen, MD, and was a culmination of 15 years of research.
“The HPTN 052 study confirms the urgent need to treat people with HIV infection as soon as infection is diagnosed to protect their health and for public health,” Cohen said. “This study represents more than a decade of effort by a worldwide team of investigators, and the tremendous courage and generosity of more than 3,500 clinical trial participants.”
Martina Kovarova, PhD, Research Assistant Professor of Medicine at UNC, found promising results from a new drug that could mean another alternative for prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV. The anti-HIV medication 4’-Ethynyl-2-fluoro-2’deoxyadenosine or EFdA, prevented oral and vaginal transmission of HIV in pre-clinical animal models. This is important as 1.5 million women living with HIV become pregnant each year.
“Women and children are vulnerable to HIV infection,” Kovarova said. “We discovered that EFdA can prevent vaginal transmission of HIV, which would prevent new infections in women. In addition, we were also able to show that EFdA can prevent oral transmission of HIV which would prevent infants who are born to mothers already living with HIV from acquiring the virus during breastfeeding.”
Finally, the UNC Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) was refunded for an additional five years. The purpose of the UNC CFAR is to provide infrastructure to support investigation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic using clinical research, behavioral research, research into HIV biology and pathogenesis at the molecular level, and educational outreach. It is a consortium of three complementary institutions: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Research Triangle Institute, and Family Health International. With this new refunding cycle the UNC CFAR will have been continuously funded since August 1998.
“This remarkable accomplishment can be largely attributed to the strong synergy and harmonizing strengths of the three collaborating institutions,” says Prema Menezes, Administrative Director of the CFAR and Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases within the UNC School of Medicine. “In this refunding cycle the consortium will continue to reinforce research interests and enhance the research potential at each institution. Together the three institutions will provide infrastructure to support four powerful approaches to understanding and combating the global HIV/AIDS epidemic: clinical research, behavioral research, research into mechanisms at the molecular level, and educational outreach. Infrastructure for these four approaches provides needed support for our research community as we pursue the fundamental issues of HIV/AIDS research and education.”