Merck and UCSF Team Up to Find New Weapons Against Resurgent HIV

7/20/11Follow @arleneweintraub

Three years ago, Warner Greene was among a number of HIV experts meeting at George Washington University to discuss the problem of HIV “latency”—the tendency of the virus that causes AIDS to hide in cells and then rage up when drug therapy is halted. “I made a plea,” recalls Greene, head of virology and immunology research at the Gladstone Institutes, a biomedical research institution affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco. Rather than maintaining separate and often competitive research efforts, he said, universities should join with government research agencies and drug companies to try to solve the problem together. “The world ‘collaboratory’ came out of nowhere,” Greene says.

From that discussion emerged the Martin Delaney Collaboratory—a consortium that includes academic researchers from several universities, as well as Merck, the Whitehouse Station, NJ-based drug giant that has made HIV research a priority. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding the effort. On July 11, Merck announced that it would participate in a five-year effort with UCSF to solve the problem of HIV latency, funded by $5.6 million from the Collaboratory, which was named in honor of HIV activist Martin Delaney, who died in 2009. Separately, Merck said, it will participate in another multi-institutional research project led by the University of North Carolina and funded by the Collaboratory.

Merck won’t receive any money for participating, though it will share intellectual property rights with members of the consortia on any discoveries that come out of the effort, says Daria Hazuda, vice president of Merck Research Laboratories. More importantly, she says, Merck will have access to an HIV brain trust that could unlock a mystery that has confounded the field for years. “If we want to cure HIV, we have to define the problem of latency,” she says. “We need to understand where the virus is hiding and how it sleeps in cells.”

The outlook for HIV patients has greatly improved thanks to the two dozen or so anti-viral treatments on the market, which include Merck’s own raltegravir (Isentress) and indinavir (Crixivan). Problem is, says Hazuda, “They suppress the virus, but they don’t … Next Page »

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