Expert teams come together to unlock the mysteries of HIV

Despite major advances in HIV treatment and prevention, there are still many unanswered questions that we need to address. For example, more research is needed to better understand whether some people living with HIV are prone to early development of certain diseases, and tend to age faster than people without HIV. This may be the case even for individuals whose HIV is fully under control, or ‘virologically suppressed’. Not all individuals with HIV age at the same rate or to the same extent, and the search is on to identify predictors of such disease progression and the underlying processes.

Big questions like these can only be answered by big collaborations, such as those between the pharmaceutical industry, academia, government agencies and not-for-profit organisations, all working together towards a common goal. Collaboration is at the very heart of ViiV’s mission to leave no person living with HIV behind, and ViiV itself was born out of a unique collaboration between GSK, Pfizer and Shionogi. We currently have more than 50 active collaborations worldwide, in search of better medicines and a cure for HIV.

In 2019, ViiV Healthcare kicked-off a five-year collaboration with Radboud University Medical Center (Radboudumc) in Nijmegen, which is coordinating a large research program that includes nine other research centres from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Austria. The collaboration provides dedicated funding to enhance the HIV-specific work of the Human Functional Genomics Project (HFGP), a large-scale project investigating the factors that determine how the body recognises and defends itself from disease, as well as the signs, symptoms and progression of disease. Using this information, the goal is to identify early-stage drug targets that we can use to develop new medicines or approaches to treat diseases.

Principal Investigator Professor André van der Ven explains the primary aims of the partnership

ViiV Healthcare provided 15M Euros to expand the number of HIV-infected individuals participating in the HFGP from 200 to 2000+, along with providing extensive support from its own expert HIV scientists. Called the ‘2000HIV Human Functional Genomics Partnership Program’, in short ‘2000HIV’, the program uses a combination of data from a comprehensive clinical database, together with state-of-the-art molecular techniques, to identify and examine predictors and pathways of disease that are specific to people living with HIV.

Three years into the ‘2000HIV’ journey, the study is fully recruited, and baseline data collected. The collaboration has spawned over 50 medical journal articles so far, with many more on the way. Among the latest findings is greater insight into the role of the innate immune system in controlling HIV infection – a pathway in which Radboudumc is a world-leading authority, and that may lead to innovative therapeutic approaches. Other investigations into the immune control of latently infected cell pools (cells that harbour dormant virus), in collaboration with the University of Ghent in Belgium, may pave the way towards HIV cures or vaccines. This public–private collaboration between academia, ViiV Healthcare and the HIV community in the Netherlands continues to go from strength to strength. In the words of Professor Jan van Lunzen, Head of Translational Medicine at ViiV Healthcare, “I am a strong believer that this is one of the very best studied cohort of people living with HIV in the world – it is unique.”

Prof. van Lunzen went on to share his views on why this collaboration will mean so much to people living with HIV, and to the field of HIV medicine in general:

"The primary purpose of our collaboration is to find the unmet needs of PLHIV on effective treatments. Some diseases are still over-represented in the HIV population, and these are related to ageing and immuno-inflammation. We want to have a better understanding of these – what are the drivers, how can we detect these changes, how can we track them? And hopefully also find some of what we call ‘targets of interest’, i.e., new drug targets or new ways to treat this persistent disease. Lastly, these learnings will eventually lead us towards a better understanding of how to achieve HIV remission and cure."

So, what do some of the people living with HIV feel about participating in 2000HIV ? We were lucky enough to hear from one of the 2000HIV study participants.

The 2000HIV investigators are extremely grateful for the involvement of all participants, as expressed by Prof. van Lunzen: “As this is a cohort study, there is no immediate benefit for the patient, as there might be in a drug trial. I think this is a testimony to the commitment of the study participants to the broader HIV community – to take part in such a study, mostly for altruistic reasons.”

Underpinning the success of the 2000HIV partnership between Radboudumc and ViiV Healthcare are the twin themes of teamwork and collaboration. Clearly, patients are the most important contributors to this collaboration. Then there are the doctors and researchers working in academia and at the study sites, and the support and expertise from ViiV Healthcare. In the words of Principal Investigator Professor Mihai Netea: “This is a unique project in that so many people living with HIV are studied from all points of view – from the clinical point of view, from the psychological point of view, from the immunological point of view, and then for a very deep understanding of the molecular mechanisms of HIV infection. This is made possible through the collaboration that we have with ViiV Healthcare on the one hand, but also with collaborators around the world with whom we do very technologically advanced types of assessments.” Prof. Netea spoke to the “good chemistry” between study scientists, and how little Covid had impacted the progress of patient recruitment and communication between all collaborators in general.

Collaboration remains at the heart of all ViiV Healthcare’s initiatives to improve the lives of people with HIV, and to prevent the spread of this infection. Collaboration across the HIV research community, both public and private, public health bodies, not-for-profit organisations, and people who are directly impacted by HIV.

2000HIV researchers, ViiV Healthcare, and all the team members involved in the 2000HIV project wish to thank the participants for their involvement.