GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill have launched a $20 million partnership focused on curing HIV through a jointly-owned new company and a research center.

GSK will spend $4 million each year over five years through the new company, Qura Therapeutics, to fund the research center or “HIV Cure center.” The partnership plans to combine GSK’s expertise in medicines discovery, development, and manufacturing with UNC-Chapel Hill’s research and translational medicine capabilities, researchers, and access to patients and funding.

“This partnership is a testament to our past and present leadership, innovation and commitment to this field,” GSK CEO Sir Andrew Witty said in a statement. “We are inspired by the confidence that with the right resources and research teams, we will be able to make a meaningful impact towards a cure for HIV.”

The partners said a “small” research team from GSK will move to Chapel Hill to be co-located with UNC researchers on laboratory space. The university will provide laboratory space on its medical campus for the new company and the HIV Cure center.

The center’s HIV research will include “shock and kill,” a search-and-destroy approach to HIV that entails reactivating the cells of people infected with HIV, in order to induce the dormant virus into production so it can be destroyed via antiretroviral therapies.

In 2012 a team led by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers showed that latent HIV might be exposed by new therapies. More recently, researchers at the university received FDA approval for a study in HIV-positive volunteers to combine “shock and kill” and an immune-boosting strategy against the virus.

“The 'shock and kill' approach has shown significant promise in early translational research on humans and has been the focus of research for the last several years,” David Margolis, M.D., director of UNC’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, and leader of the Collaboratory of AIDS Researchers for Eradication (CARE), said in a statement.

Qura will manage business aspects of the partnership, including intellectual property, commercialization, manufacturing, and governance. The partners said yesterday they hope the company and research center will serve as catalysts for additional partners and public funding.

Qura and the research center will both be advised by ViiV Healthcare, an HIV-focused drug developer majority-owned by GSK, with Pfizer and Shionogi as equity partners. GSK said its partnership with UNC will be separate from its activity in the discovery of antiretroviral therapies for Viiv; the pharma giant's HIV Discovery Performance Unit will continue its work on new antiretrovirals at Research Triangle Park.

Last week, GSK balked at a previously-planned spinoff of Viiv, citing stronger-than-expected launches for two new HIV treatments: Tivicay® (dolutegravir) generated sales of £112 million (about $173.8 million) during the first quarter of this year following its ongoing rollout, while Triumeq (abacavir/dolutegravir /lamivudine) racked up £81 million ($125.7 million) after launches in the U.S. and much of Europe.

Those products helped boost Viiv revenues by 42% during the first quarter of this year compared with Q1 2014, to £446 million ($692.1 million), driven by growth of 66% in the U.S., and 35% in Europe; elsewhere in the world “international” revenues rose 9%.

Viiv’s numbers contrasted with GSK’s 7% slide in Q1 pharmaceuticals sales due to sagging sales of established medicines. That fueled speculation among analysts that GSK retained Viiv to prop up numbers in its pharma unit. GSK, however, has said its Viiv decision will further its commitment to fighting HIV—the same goal it articulated in launching the partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill.

“There is clear scope to develop multiple dolutegravir-based regimens for treatment of HIV over the next few years,” GSK said May 6 in its announcement of first-quarter results. “Having reviewed this very positive outlook, GSK has concluded that retaining its full, existing holding in ViiV Healthcare is in the best interests of the Group and GSK will not now be initiating an IPO of a minority stake.”

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