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 the generic aspirin found at a local drug store, but they still look small enough to swallow without much effort.
"These are tablets of Amodiaquine," he explains.
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.
"You have to be ready to do chemistry everywhere," she says. "You have to be ready for a presentation at all times — in the middle of the hallway, 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 was going to have to go back to work in the steel mill," he says.
But Fortunak says he tested well enough to get into an honors course.
"They let us do whatever we wanted in honors chemistry lab," he continues. "I convinced my lab mate that we should do brain surgery on cockroaches, and I guess that's what turned me into a chemist."
Fortunak 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 because it was clear to me that big pharma doesn't actually have the job, or the mission of making sure that medicines are available to everybody in the world," he says.
Searching for a cheaper, more efficient drug
So back to those round white tablets: Amodiaquine.
Amodiaquine is a drug used to combat malaria.
"And [these] tablets are made in Africa, by Africans," Fortunak says. "So this is the first time Africans have synthesized and made tablets of their own Amodiaquine."
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 approximately in the year 2000, the United Nations and the World Health Organization decided that they would create a donation program for low and middle income countries," Fortunak says. "Well, that system wasn't meant to last forever."
"Now think about it," he says, "there is a pharmaceutical industry in Africa. But if you're donating medicines in Africa, your donations are actually militating toward crushing the growth and the development of that 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.
"But, in just about any country in the world, there are few things that are available to do chemical synthesis from," he says. "Everyone's got water, and almost everyone has acetic acid and ethanol, and rubbing alcohol. Can we challenge ourselves, to make chemistry so that we can manufacture medicines in the markets that are available 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, 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.
"The great thing about that is the volume of that drug in low- and middle-income countries in 2012 is 750 metric tons," says Fortunak. "That represents well-over 3 million people taking that drug, when in 2005, it was essentially zero."
On the path toward making a difference
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 [Associate Dean at Howard] 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 have the public relations behind them.
Fortunak will be speaking about this work and other "green chemistry" ideas Tuesday night at a meeting of the American Chemical Society at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
[Music: "How to Save a Life" by Guitar Tribute Players from 35 Acoustic Pop Hits]
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