AIDS Drug Creator Never Profited From His Discovery

Jerome Horwitz, the developer of the antiretroviral drug AZT, died earlier this month. Audie Cornish speaks with Paul Volberding, Director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of San Francisco about how AZT revolutionized AIDS research.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We learn this week of the death of a medical researcher whose work had a profound impact on the treatment of the AIDS virus. Jerome Horwitz invented the drug AZT. It was approved in 1987, the first drug that significantly helped decrease the devastating death toll of AIDS. And the twist, Horwitz, who had created the drug some 20 years earlier as a researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit, was actually trying to treat cancer but it hadn't worked. So he shelved AZT and never took out a patent. Jerome Horwitz never made any money off the drug he invented. He died earlier this month at the age of 93. For more on the impact of AZT, we're joined by Dr. Paul Volberding, director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California at San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

DR. PAUL VOLBERDING: It's great to be here, thanks.

CORNISH: Now, I understand that you didn't know Horwitz personally, but you knew his work very well. And take us back to the '80s when AIDS is just coming to be known as an epidemic and there's no treatment. And what is that AZT did that other drugs didn't.

VOLBERDING: Well, in the early days of the epidemic, we had absolutely no way to even slow the course of the disease. And people were really desperate and people were trying a number of things that weren't working. And then the news of AZT came along and once it was shown in the laboratory to have some activity against the virus, very quickly clinical trials were organized and they showed that this drug, even with all the imperfections, was by itself, enough to slow the course of the disease down.

CORNISH: And what exactly did this drug do differently?

VOLBERDING: Well, this drug blocks one of the enzymes that the virus uses in order to reproduce within the cell. So it blocks a necessary step in the virus and decreases the amount of virus that's growing in the person's body.

CORNISH: What's interesting is that AZT also became part of a cultural moment. We've got a bit of tape here that sort of gets at that issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "ANGELS IN AMERICA")

JAMES CROMWELL: (As Roy's Doctor) Well, whatever the (bleep) you have, it's very serious. And I haven't got a damn thing for you. The NIH in Bethesda has a new drug called AZT with a two-year waiting list that not even I can get you on to.

CORNISH: It's not too often that prescription drugs get featured dramatically. That was from HBO's version of the award-winning play "Angels in America," which was obviously a famous play based on the AIDS crisis. Talk a little bit about AZT's cultural impact.

VOLBERDING: Well, it's actually a complicated story. AIDS is very political as always and this drug, while it represented hope for people that had no hope before the drug came along, was seen by other people as a very toxic drug. It had a lot of side effects in the doses that we were using at the time. It was an inconvenient drug. People had to take it every four hours. And it was the first drug to be priced so it - in this new disease, so it really became a, really a lightning rod for all of the fear and anger that was swirling around the epidemic at the time. Ultimately, it paved the way for truly effective therapies, but it was a rocky start. Some people felt that it was a toxin. Other people really were clamoring to get on the drug. So we saw all that in the first couple of years after the drug was introduced.

CORNISH: In the end, what would you say that Jerome Horwitz' legacy is?

VOLBERDING: Well, it's sad that he didn't have a chance to have any of the economic benefits from a very important discovery, you know. This gave hope to people, it paved the way for the treatments that we use now that have made this really a very treatable chronic disease. And I hope he at least had the satisfaction of having - of knowing that he gave us this drug.

CORNISH: Dr. Paul Volberding, thank you for talking with us.

VOLBERDING: Great. Thanks. It's been an honor.

CORNISH: That's Paul Volberding. He's director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California at San Francisco. He was talking about Jerome Horwitz, who invented the drug AZT. Horwitz died on September 6.

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