Emory Report
February 13, 2006
Volume 58, Number 19


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February 13, 2006
Liotta talks drug discovery at Distinguished Faculty Lecture

BY Katherine Baust Lukens

Dennis Liotta, professor of chemistry and one of the faculty members involved in last summer’s landmark Emtriva drug sale that brought some $540 million in royalty sales to Emory and the inventors, was the speaker at the 11th annual Distinguished Faculty Lecture, Feb. 6 in the Rita Rollins Room of the Rollins School of Public Health.

Liotta’s lecture, “New Therapies for Treating Viral Infections and Cancers,” was sponsored by Faculty Council and delivered to a full house.

It is possible that some of you may not have heard of Professor Liotta before Emtriva sold for [$540 million], though I doubt that’s true now,” said Thomas Frank, chair-elect of Faculty Council and professor of church administration in the Candler School of Theology. “However, that is not the [only] reason he is here today. As the chair of chemistry, he has bridged boundaries between arts and sciences and the health sciences.”

Since it is a mixed audience, my mission here is to try and translate what I do into words and pictures,” Liotta said as he took the podium. “I have been a professor here for almost 30 years, and I do research—that can mean different things to people—but I have looked to translate my research into drugs or therapies to help the public.

I have been asked how we were able to beat ‘Big Pharma’ in discovering Emtriva,” Liotta continued. “Drug discovery used to only happen in big pharmaceutical companies, but that trend has changed in the last 15 years or so, and now the big pharmaceutical companies spend most of their money on drug development rather than research.”

He explained the trend is based on economic rather than scientific reasons. In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical companies had double-digit revenue growth that was not sustainable, Liotta said. To continue maximizing profits, companies engaged in mergers and acquisitions, which in turn resulted in layoffs and personnel transitions—phenomena not conducive to research, Liotta said.

At universities, on the other hand, people have been studying their areas for a long time and don’t get traded—at least not very often,” he quipped.

Liotta discussed AIDS and why, after 25 years, there is still no cure in sight. “Part of the problem is that, when cell replication takes place, there is [often] an error—there are mutant variations of the virus,” he said. “When we design a drug, it suppresses those that aren’t mutations, but the mutations grow. We call this viral resistance.”

Emtriva is nice because it has so few side effects, and you only have to take it once a day,” Liotta continued, touching on why the drug is preferable to other drug “cocktails” that require several daily doses. “If you miss a dose, [HIV] can mutate and cause the disease to progress. Taking it once a day is the easiest way to get good compliance.”

He then shifted gears to talk about cancer therapies. “We are looking for nontoxic therapies. One we are researching is curcumin. We don’t have anything conclusive yet—but if you like curry, I encourage you to eat it,” he said with a smile.

Curcumin is the active ingredient of the Indian curry spice turmeric and is known for its antitumor, antioxidant, anti-amyloid and anti-inflammatory properties. In the last few decades, extensive work has been done to establish curcumin’s biological activities and pharmacological properties.