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Pharmaceuticals

A New Push Against HIV

Partnering: Merck, Sangamo, and NIH will join universities to combat HIV drug resistance

by Lisa M. Jarvis
July 18, 2011 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 89, ISSUE 29

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Credit: C. Goldsmith & P. Feorino
The project aims to combat HIV (green) that resists antiviral therapy.
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Credit: C. Goldsmith & P. Feorino
The project aims to combat HIV (green) that resists antiviral therapy.

The National Institutes of Health is providing three research teams—each consisting of an academic and an industry partner—with up to five years of funding to develop new strategies for combating HIV. The agency plans to spend as much as $70 million to support the new anti-HIV research program.

Merck & Co. will participate in two of the three projects, joining forces with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the University of California, San Francisco, which will receive $6.3 million and $4.2 million, respectively, in the first year of the project. The third project pairs Sangamo Biosciences with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, which will receive $4.1 million in the first year.

Each team will take a different approach to battling HIV that resists treatment with antiretroviral therapy. The first step to finding better medicine is improving understanding of the complex biology of the infection, according to Daria J. Hazuda, head of discovery for infectious disease at Merck Research Laboratories.

Hazuda says the scientists plan to explore several fundamental questions, including why the virus persists despite highly effective therapy, whether current therapy is less effective in specific cells or tissues, and what mechanisms the virus uses to remain silent in cells and then activate after a patient has stopped therapy. The groups will attempt to develop better animal models, which have been “one of the biggest gaps in the field,” she says.

By pairing academics who have expertise in clinical virology, mouse-model systems, and pharmacology with industry partners that are skilled in translating research findings into drugs, the programs are expected to overcome some of the historical barriers to progress in fighting HIV, Hazuda adds.

“This will be an important model for many disease areas moving forward,” Hazuda says. “We’re at a point now where we’re trying to tackle many diseases, like HIV, where there are significant gaps in the underlying biology. We really need to work together with external experts in the field to move these areas along.”

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