Friday, December 2, 2011

Chemist recalls history of AIDS drugs

Every December 1 is World AIDS Day, a chance to unite in the fight against HIV, and to reflect on how the epidemic has changed medicine and society.

In 1987, AZT became the first drug for treating HIV infections. “There were issues in the supply of AZT at the time,” recalls Emory chemist Dennis Liotta. “And there were also issues around rapid development of resistance to the drug.”

Liotta’s lab decided to tackle the problem of coming up with a better treatment.

“We came in with a completely uninformed, but fresh, look at the problem,” Liotta recalls. “We had some very efficient ways of preparing compounds. We came up with a novel idea, and it actually worked the first time we tried it.”

The new approach resulted in two important anti-virals for HIV treatment. “First, they had limited side effects as compared to other drugs being used to treat HIV,” Liotta says. “That’s important, because people have to take these drugs every day of their life. The second feature is that they have good resistance profiles. When given in combination, they can dramatically suppress viral replication.”

The breakthroughs were a major game-changer for HIV, allowing infected people to live relatively normal lives by sticking to a treatment regimen.

About 94 percent of people who are being treated for HIV in the United States take one of the anti-viral drugs developed by Liotta’s team.

“Part of our success was due to coming at the problem from a different perspective than others,” Liotta says. “Another part was due to our skills in organic synthesis. And a third part was being in the right place at the right time. As Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’”

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