UNC AIDS researchers fear federal budget cuts

Programs depend on national funds


University AIDS researchers, prideful of programs that ranked 8th in the country last year, say they are fearful that budget cuts could slash away at funds and resources.

Dr. David Margolis, professor of medicine, said he is particularly concerned with the future of funding from the National Institutes of Health, the primary pipeline for AIDS research funding at UNC and nationwide.

As the government faces pressures to cut costs, that funding has become jeopardized, he said.

Margolis said the NIH grant acceptance rate has recently fallen to the 8th percentile, so 92 percent of projects aren’t chosen to be funded.

“Good times would be the 20th percentile,” he said. “Now it’s the 8th, and it’ll probably be less than that soon.”

Ronald Swanstrom, director of the University’s Center for AIDS Research, said the center is funded mainly by NIH funding, though it also receives supplemental funding from the University. The University’s NIH research portfolio is in excess of $30 million.

“The University provides some matching funding for the developmental awards,” he said. “They provide some discretionary funds just to help administer the (Center for AIDS Research) and then we get an equipment allowance to keep up with equipment needs.”

Researchers said the University currently has three priority areas in AIDS research: prevention, treatment and therapy, and the quest for a functional cure.

Preventative efforts include creating effective vaccines and working with microbicides, which can take the form of pills or topical creams.

Also important are behavioral therapies, which are intended to promote contraceptives and therapy.

Advancements in preventative efforts have yielded success in places like Malawi, where Chancellor Holden Thorp recently visited to observe UNC’s involvement.

Treatment work aims to bring more people with HIV infections into care and to administer lifesaving therapy, Margolis said.

Meanwhile, Margolis and Dr. Victor Garcia-Martinez are working toward eradicating the disease in the body completely, a breakthrough several colleagues said could be on the horizon.

By inducing viral replication in latently infected HIV cells with 100 percent efficiency, they believe the virus can be purged from the body, essentially creating a cure.

“Our AIDS folks are convinced that they’re going to cure AIDS,” Thorp said. “That’s certainly their goal, and they’ve done an awful lot to stop the spread of it in Africa.”

But, as is the case with so many campus endeavors, the economy is standing in the way.

Swanstrom said cuts at the national level would have a substantial impact on the University’s research capacity.

“If NIH cuts all the grants by 10 percent, that has an immediate effect on us,” he said, adding that UNC will know how the severity of NIH cuts in March.

“There’s a discussion about going back to 2008 funding levels and cutting $100 billion from the (NIH) budget.”

Margolis said cuts like that would hamper projects broadly.

“My personal group can survive budget cuts for the next year or two, but the University as a whole will be challenged,” he said.

“I see people for the first time going back to China rather than coming from China to do research. I’ve never seen that before.”

But Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases, was more optimistic about the future.

“We don’t see it as putting an end to what we’re passionate about,” Cohen said. “When the money comes back, we can make even more rapid progress.”

Dr. John Thorp, director of UNC’s obstetrics and gynecology program and cousin of the chancellor, said he was hopeful cuts wouldn’t deter his work in Malawi.

“I think we’re going to get it done in spite of the economy,” he said. “But I don’t want to sound too optimistic or sanguine.”

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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