$1 Million Grant from State of Florida Will Support UM HIV/AIDS Research

Governor Rick Scott and Senator Rene Garcia visited the Miller School of Medicine Monday to present a check from the state of Florida for $1 million to advance HIV/AIDS research. The funding will help support ongoing AIDS research programs and extend the research capacity of UM’s Center for AIDS Research through synergistic collaborations with investigators at other institutions in South Florida. In addition, the funds will promote the creation of the University of Miami HIV/AIDS Institute, which will serve as the umbrella under which clinical, research and philanthropic activities at UM will be coordinated.

“For anyone who has ever worked in healthcare, every day you help somebody’s life,” said Scott, who was a hospital executive before entering politics. “Funding research to cure the horrible diseases that afflict our loved ones has to be one of our top priorities. One of the nice things to happen in our state in the last four years is that we have turned our economy around. So as our economy gets better, we have more money in the budget, and we can do more things. Healthcare is clearly one of them. We must work together to treat these complex diseases, which require much more research and development.”

“When I realized that Miami-Dade County was the epicenter of new HIV/AIDS cases, I knew we had to do something about it,” said Garcia. “We couldn’t just sit back and wait for other folks to do it.”

Garcia sat down with Scott, who promised his commitment to taking action, and Garcia began lobbying his fellow Florida legislators for support. Scott then added the funding to the 2014-15 budget, which the legislators passed.

“We’ve come a long way with the HIV epidemic,” said Garcia. “It no longer is a death sentence. It’s now a manageable and chronic disease. Also, it’s no longer a disease that affects just one subgroup in our population. It affects everyone. I can’t stress any more strongly that the only way we can end this epidemic is to get rid of the stigma associated with it. Getting people in treatment and on medications – this is how we’re going to end this deadly disease that we’ve been fighting for so many years.”

Accepting the check on behalf of UM were Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School and CEO of UHealth, and Mario Stevenson, Ph.D., professor of medicine, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine and Co-Director of the Center for AIDS Research, whose research will be supported by the state funding and who will direct the new Institute.

Speaking directly to Governor Scott and Senator Garcia, Goldschmidt said, “Thanks to both of you, that money now goes toward advancing the research being conducted by Dr. Mario Stevenson to find cures and treatments that can affect so many people in our community. Our physicians see these patients every day, and they know just how imperative it is that we find a cure.”

Goldschmidt explained why the need is so great: Miami-Dade County has the nation’s largest number of new AIDS cases per capita; Broward County ranks second. Florida ranks second in the nation in the number of pediatric AIDS cases, and third in the number of people – 125,000, approximately 11.7 percent of the nation’s total, including 1 percent of the population of Miami – living with HIV/AIDS.

“It’s good to be No. 1 in basketball, but not in HIV/AIDS statistics,” said Stevenson. “South Florida is disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, and we need to mount a commensurate response. Our primary goal is to achieve a cure for HIV/AIDS.

“In the fight against HIV, we have a formidable arsenal of drugs that control the disease,” he continued. “However, these drugs don’t cure. HIV has figured out a way to hang on by its fingernails. As a result, there are over 45 million people living with HIV, and their only recourse is to keep taking antiretroviral drugs – for life. This isn’t an acceptable or sustainable solution.

“In the last couple of years, research has provided some clues into how HIV is able to avoid being eradicated by antiviral drugs,” Stevenson said. “With this money, we will assemble the troops and develop the weapons. We will stimulate innovation and collaboration across South Florida, with the goal of propelling cutting-edge research that leads to an AIDS cure. What seemed like a dream is now a reality.”

The objective is to use the state money to drive a research agenda aimed at curing HIV infection. The Institute will oversee the use of the state funds to stimulate innovation and support cutting-edge research. That will include coordinating a Scientific Advisory Board, soliciting pilot grant proposals, reviewing applications, and providing financial and scientific oversight.

“We have the best scientists in the field here,” said Stevenson. “It’s a tremendous collection of talent. This funding will help us harness that talent to go after a cure for HIV. Frankly, I can’t think of a more noble cause.”

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