Santa Fe, N.M. • Southwest CARE Center, a once-tiny New Mexico clinic at the forefront of HIV/AIDS research since its founding in 1996, is seeking to expand its research program.

The center’s director of research, Tamara Flys, said this week Southwest CARE of Santa Fe is looking for partnerships to delve into geriatric, pediatric, diabetes and primary-care research, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported .

The move comes as the center has seen rapid growth over the past five years.

In early 2013, Southwest CARE logged 600 patients, all of them HIV-positive. Today, after an institutional overhaul that saw the addition of primary care, pediatric, diabetes, women’s health and other services, the center treats 12,000 patients in six New Mexico cities.

In addition, the center’s staff grew from about 35 employees in 2013 to 185 today.

Over its 22-year history, the center has participated in 100 clinical trials, while also initiating some of its own research into HIV and AIDS.

“For a small, community-based clinic like us to be represented in the scientific community as prominently as we’ve been over the years is a unique distinction,” said Jeff Thomas, the center’s CEO.

For years, the clinic remained a tight-knit, community-based operation while developing an international reputation for research. These days, pharmaceutical companies come to them when they need help testing drugs for HIV, AIDS or Hepatitis C.

Thomas, who joined as CEO in 2008 and has overseen the expansion, said his goal is for Southwest CARE to be the health care provider of choice in the communities it serves.

The idea to expand, Thomas said, grew in response to the demand he saw for more comprehensive care in Santa Fe — and the changing needs of HIV patients.

“By the time I got here, we were treating fewer and fewer AIDS-related conditions and more and more primary care conditions,” Thomas said. “We were treating people who were HIV-positive, but we were taking care of their diabetes, their hypertension, their heart disease, their issues of aging more so than focusing on specialty HIV care.”

Today, much of the research department’s work involves PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis therapies, which are taken to prevent HIV exposure in at-risk populations. The Food and Drug Administration approved Truvada, the first HIV preventative medication, in 2012.

Santa Fe resident Patrick Coss has participated in two preventative drug trials through Southwest CARE.

Coss, 52, said he feels a societal responsibility to help further HIV drug research, especially as a gay man who lived through the virus’ swift, deadly spread in the 1980s.

“It’s really amazing what that’s done for us, I think, as a community, of bringing us back together, of bridging that divide,” he said.