“In my field there are more valleys than peaks, and you learn to cope with failure,” says Jerome P. Horwitz, 67, chairman of the chemistry department at the Michigan Cancer Foundation in Detroit. Happily for him, this year he made it to a peak. He did so by discovering a drug that is the best hope yet of slowing the modern-day plague, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
He actually made the discovery 22 years ago, when he and his MCF colleagues were in the process of synthesizing more than 100 compounds in search of anticancer drugs. One was AZT, a modified form of the chemical thymidine, a building block of DNA. The aim was to create false building blocks and then coax cancer cells into accepting the fakes. “We hoped for a sort of suicide for cancer cells,” says Horwitz. “That they would do themselves in.”
Alas, the drug didn’t work, at least on cancer. “It was frustrating because the theory seemed right,” he says. “We had this very interesting set of compounds waiting for a disease to cure.” Horwitz heard no more of AZT until last year, when he was startled to learn that the Burroughs Wellcome drug company was testing the compound against the AIDS-associated disease pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). When the results were found to be positive, Horwitz was elated. “AZT is finally able to do some good,” he says, “to prolong life and improve the quality of life for AIDS patients. It’s not a cure—few viruses can be cured—but it’s offering hope to a lot of people.”
AZT was never patented, so neither Horwitz nor MCF stand to earn a penny. That doesn’t trouble him, he says, but he would appreciate proper credit. A Detroit native with a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Michigan, he recalls his two daughters, both married to physicians, once asking why he went into research. “I told them,” he says, “I wanted a career in which, with some luck and lots of work, I might have a chance to make a difference.”
So he has. In October the National Institutes of Health began testing another possible anti-AIDS weapon, a drug called “ddCyd,” which Horwitz and colleagues developed in the ’60s. “I have a gut feeling,” he says, “that it might be even more effective than AZT.”