The first clinical observations of the virus that causes AIDS were made in 1981, and the virus itself was isolated in 1984. From that point on, Louis Kucera, PhD, recalls, the race was on for scientists across the world to find ways to treat the virus. It soon came to alter the path of his life’s work.
Kucera, a professor of microbiology and immunology, had been researching how the herpes virus was associated with cervical cancer in women. With the creation of the School of Medicine’s first biocontainment laboratory to study HIV in 1986, Kucera embarked on research that would shift his emphasis to finding potential medications to combat HIV. His work would grow to encompass a spinout company, one of the Medical Center’s early technology transfer efforts.
Discovery Leads to New Research Focus
A key discovery came in 1988, when Kucera published a study showing that the genital herpes virus and the HIV virus can reproduce simultaneously in the same white blood cell.
The implications of that discovery led to studying how synthetic lipids might be used in combination with AZT, an early anti-viral drug used to combat HIV. The problem with AZT was that the virus tended to build up resistance. Kucera and his team of medicinal chemists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill worked to create a combination drug with their synthetic lipid that would be a longer-term success for people infected with the HIV virus.
A Spinoff Company is Born
Kucera Pharmaceutical Co. was founded in 2001 and opened in the fledgling Piedmont Triad Research Park, while Kucera continued working in the laboratory on the fifth floor of Gray Building. His son, Greg Kucera, PhD, was involved in the work and would later begin a second thread with Kucera Pharmaceuticals hoping to capitalize on using a lipid as an anti-cancer drug.
But with the dot.com collapse, funding for biotechnology ventures became more difficult to obtain
After initial successes in the research laboratory testing their novel HIV treatment for how well it would work in the body and how long its effect would last, the drug was tested in an HIV-infected mouse model in 2004. The results came back negative—it had not helped improve the condition of the infected mice.
Kucera retired shortly after the 2004 tests, ending an 18-year run as a top HIV researcher. Greg Kucera continues today at the School of Medicine as a professor of hematology and oncology doing research that investigates novel anticancer drugs or combinations of drugs that affect cellular proliferation.
“I was disappointed that at the end we couldn’t pursue this work any further, that we were not able to carry it beyond the point where we had carried it,” Louis Kucera said. “But overall my years at Wake Forest, and my time spent, and the investigative work that I did, and my collaboration with other scientists, was very satisfying, very inspiring for me.”