April 20, 2014

Florida Biotech

A tall order for VGTI - Finding a Cure for HIV

Can Sékaly deliver a cure for HIV and ease Florida's dependence on real estate and tourism?

Mike Vogel | 3/19/2012
Rafick-Pierre Sekaly
Rafick-Pierre Sékaly made national news in Canada when he decided to leave Montreal for Florida in 2009. "I really want south Florida to be one of the major leading centers in what we call the HIV cure," he says. [Photo: Steven Martine]

A few minutes into an interview, a weary-looking Rafick-Pierre Sékaly pauses as his whole frame lifts in a mighty yawn, the first of several to emerge in the next hour. With an eloquent shrug, the scientist describes workdays stretching to 18 hours and the push to finish the new home of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida in Port St. Lucie. He's 61 and notes his scientific role models are in their 80s and 90s. The implication is that he's just beginning 20 more years of work.

Florida will be eager to see what he can accomplish. As part of taxpayers' $1.3-billion investment in creating a life science industry, Florida in 2008 committed $60 million to create VGTI-Florida, an offshoot of a similarly named institute in Oregon. Local governments threw in another $53 million. VGTI-Florida's big recruiting catch was landing Sékaly as co-director and chief scientific officer.

In a thick accent — interrupted by those yawns — he traces his life story. A native of Lebanon, he emigrated to Canada at 18 with his parents. He was a student in the days when Christiaan Barnard and Michael DeBakey pioneered the first heart transplants, and he became fascinated with transplant rejection, the immune system and viruses. He earned a bachelor's in microbiology and a master's in immunology in Canada.

Then he went skiing. Rather than sit out three days of rain in a Swiss chalet, he visited the University of Lausanne, a top center for immunology. He hit it off with a scientist there. "Pure serendipity," Sékaly says.

Lausanne, where he completed his doctorate in 1984, led him into big-time science and to the contacts that propel a career. He returned to Canada in 1988 and over the course of 20 years built a reputation as a leading scientist in HIV and human immunology — along with capturing $150 million in grants, writing more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles and earning 20 patents.

He became such a scientific force that it was national news in Canada when he was recruited away in 2009. Parliament debated the adequacy of funding levels. Editorials decried low Canadian research spending. "Funding is everything," Sékaly says.

Port St. Lucie meant the money to pursue his vision of doing research on humans, rather than on mice, and building a center focused on the immune system, including the study of HIV, cancer and inflammation. "I will be eternally grateful to Florida for giving us such an opportunity," Sékaly says.

He closed shop in Montreal and brought 25 of 36 people from his lab with him to Florida. Initially, they worked out of temporary quarters in the new Tradition development at another newly recruited bio-institution, the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, while VGTI-Florida's 100,000-sq.-ft. home was built on an adjacent site.

Shortly after he arrived came publication of Sékaly's breakthrough discovery of how HIV hides in "reservoir" cells. The research, which explained how the virus hides and then breaks out when medication is halted, got global attention.

Sékaly commands a star's salary. According to VGTI-Florida tax forms, he was paid $486,231 (including $141,664 in incentive pay) in 2009, which made him the highest-paid Florida-based researcher at the new institutes the state has lured.

Outside the lab, Sékaly lives in Tradition to eliminate commuting. He's an art collector, but given his description of days packed with meetings, e-mails and Skype, he doesn't seem to have much life beyond work. His chief focus: HIV. "A cure is really a major part of our scientific agenda here, and I think VGTI Florida will be a major contributor," Sékaly says.

He and VGTI won a $3-million Gates Foundation grant last year and a $5-million grant from Merck. In his biggest score, he is a co-principal investigator on a $25-million grant ($5 million of it to VGTI) awarded last year by the National Institutes of Health. It and other grants totaling $70 million are the largest investment NIH ever has made to identify an HIV cure, says Karl Salzwedel, program officer with the NIH's Division of AIDS.

"Dr. Sékaly is a world-renowned scientist and a leader in the HIV research field," says Harvard Medical School professor Dan Barouch. "He is at the forefront of elucidating the complex interactions of biological systems and understanding the intricate workings of the human immune system." Barouch himself won worldwide attention in January as lead author of a study finding experimental vaccines that partially protected monkeys from a simian strain of HIV, a vaccine that could be adapted for humans.

The hunt for vaccines to prevent HIV infection and eliminate it in people already infected is a large field. Sékaly expects recruiting to increase now that he has a building to show scientists and room to house them. He says at least 200 scientists will work there by 2015. It can house more than 250.

But, he says, "it's difficult to attract people without a long-term strategy." Sékaly says the state needs to invest more. "It's not just a one-shot deal," he says. He would like it to fund a clinical research center and building too. He urges taxpayers to have patience. "There will be jobs created. It doesn't happen in three years. People in Florida should be proud of what they started because it's really unique."

VGTI
Sékaly expects recruiting to increase now that he has a building to show scientists and room to house them. "It's amazing," he says of the building. "This space is really very much focused on science and labs." [Photo: Steven Martine]

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