MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today we're talking chemistry. And thus far we've been focusing on chemistry of the intrapersonal sort. But now, we're going to look at how chemistry is being used to save lives. In just a few minutes we'll hear from scientists building gadgets that rely on chemistry to keep soldiers safe by detecting explosives. First though, we'll look at some new chemistry being used in the production of life-saving medicines. The world's big pharmaceutical companies are mostly known for two things, discovering major new drugs and making lots of money.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But as Jonathan Wilson tells us, a Howard University professor and his students are proving that while discovering new drugs is essential, refining older drugs could be just as important.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Professor Joseph Fortunak empties a bag of round tablets onto a desk in a basement chemistry lab at Howard University. The tablets are chalky white, with little beige speckles. The bulbous little white discs are a lot larger than, say, the generic aspirin you can get at a local drug store, but they still look small enough to swallow without much effort.
DR. JOSEPH FORTUNAK
These are tablets of Amodiaquine.
Before we get to what, exactly, Amodiaquine is, consider the professor himself, the longish, disheveled white hair and moustache, the V-neck sweater, the deliberate, exact sentences that spill effortlessly out of him. This is a man who was born to teach chemistry. Tiffany Ellison, one of his Ph.D students, says Fortunak is famous for scribbling impromptu chemistry lessons on napkins and paper towels.
MS. TIFFANY ELLISON
You have to be ready to do chemistry everywhere. You have to be ready for a presentation at all times, in the middle of the hallway or anything.
And yet, as the professor tells it, he struggled mightily in his first college chemistry course.
I was absolutely certain as a freshman at Purdue University that I was going to flunk chemistry and I'd have to go back to work in the steel mill.
But Fortunak says he tested well enough to get into an honors course.
And they let us do whatever we want in honors chemistry lab. I convinced my lab mate that we should do brain surgery on cockroaches and I guess that's what turned me into a chemist.
He went on to earn his Ph.D. in organic chemistry. That led to a 21-year career working for three huge pharmaceutical companies, where he helped shepherd 15 new drugs to market. But it was only after more than two decades as a high-level chemist working for big pharma that Fortunak made the transition to what he says is his dream job, teaching and researching at a university.
I came to Howard University because it was clear to me that big pharma doesn't actually have the job or the mission of making certain that medicines are available for everybody in the world.
So back to those round white tablets, Amodiaquine. Amodiaquine is a drug used to combat malaria. Malaria isn't common in the U.S. or Europe and so there isn't much incentive for Western companies to spend money and time researching new drugs. Amodiaquine, for instance, has been around for decades. Most of the world's supply of anti-malarial medicine is manufactured in India and China, but the greatest need is in poorer African countries such as Nigeria, where some estimates figure that a child dies every minute from malaria.
So the paradigm that we're living in now is that in approximately the year 2,000, the United Nations and the World Health Organization decided that they would undertake a huge program to create a system in which medicines would be donated to people who otherwise don't have access. And let's call those low and middle income countries. Well, that system wasn't meant to last forever.
Fortunak says that while the donation program has put all sorts of life-saving drugs into the hands of people who need them, it simply isn't a sustainable model.
When I think about it, there is a pharmaceutical industry in Africa. But if you're donating medicines into Africa, your donations are actually militating towards crushing the growth and development of that regional, pharmaceutical industry.
And that's where Fortunak comes in. He's spent the past eight years at Howard figuring out how to make common anti-malarial and anti-HIV drugs in cheaper, greener and more efficient ways. He says African countries generally don't have the robust petrochemical industry from which big pharma obtains solvents needed in the production of medicines.
Can we challenge ourselves to make chemistry so that we can manufacture medicines using the materials that are available in the markets where we would like regional production to occur.
Fortunak and his students and colleagues are challenging themselves and the rest of the world, because they're getting results. He says he's proudest of the work they've done on a couple of HIV drugs. The antiretroviral Tenofovir disoproxil fumarate now costs about a fourth of what it cost when it was first launched by drug companies in India in 2007, that's thanks to refinements in the manufacturing process discovered by Fortunak's students.
Efavirenz, a drug that Fortunak himself helped bring to market in 1998, now costs about 11 percent of what it cost when it was first introduced in India in 2005.
And the great thing about that is the volume of that drug in low- and middle-income countries in 2012 is 750 metric tons. That represents well over three million people taking that drug, when in 2005, that was essentially zero.
So how did Fortunak, who had opportunities to end up at a deep-pocketed, Ivy League research institution, choose the historically respected but relatively underfunded Howard University? Fortunak says bigger universities were excited about his ideas, but were mostly focused on how much money they could make with new patents. At Howard, the emphasis was different.
Bob Catchings said to me, Dr. Fortunak, we're not a rich university at Howard, but tell me something, how many lives could we save?
Fortunak says there is much more work to do, especially when it comes to improving access to drugs for diabetes and heart disease and cancer, diseases that kill more people than HIV and malaria, but don't, as Fortunak says, have the public relations behind them. I’m Jonathan Wilson.
Dr. Fortunak will be speaking about his work and other green chemistry ideas Tuesday night at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can find more information about that talk on our website, metroconnection.org.
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