July 21, 2008
Creating chemistry of hope
By Carol Clark
Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t right. Most people give up in that situation, but Dennis Liotta persists until he comes up with a solution.
The Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry was determined to help establish a biotechnology company focused on the needs of the developing world. After a long journey with many false starts, funding was secured and the business model for the project was reformulated.
In July, iThemba Pharmaceuticals officially began operations in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. iThemba (pronounced e-tem’-ba) means “hope” in Zulu.
“I guess we were stubborn enough,” Liotta says of the international group of six scientists who worked for seven years to move the project from concept to concrete reality.
“A more sensible person probably would have walked away, but I believe in this,” Liotta adds. “Addressing unmet medical needs in the developing world is one of those ideas that I feel compelled to see happen. We have to give it a try.”
Liotta is part of an interdis- ciplinary team of researchers at Emory that has developed two FDA-approved drugs — including the breakthrough HIV therapy Emtriva — and has four other drugs in clinical trials.
Not only is he one of the world’s foremost medicinal chemists, Liotta is also dedicated to developing what he considers a vital, missing element in global health — human capital in the developing world. He spearheads the Emory Global Health Drug Discovery Program, which brings South African scholars here for hands-on research training. The visiting scientists gain knowledge in how to develop therapies for combating the epidemics faced by their country, but they have few opportunities to apply that knowledge back home.
Liotta and a group of other eminent scientists had an idea: Why not start a biotech lab in Johannesburg, to serve as a catalyst? “South Africans are creative and versatile. We figured that, if they see a success, they will probably try to replicate it,” Liotta explains.
The scientists started the company on paper. The original business plan called for conducting contract chemical synthesis of drugs for epidemics affecting Africa’s impoverished populations — especially HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Many pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to invest in medicines for these diseases, since the markets are small and the profits are lower in the developing world. iThemba would help fill that gap.
“We pursued different approaches for funding, but each time it never materialized,” Liotta says. “The problem was, iThemba had no intellectual property.”
Finally, funding was secured from two South African government programs, LifeLAB and BioPAD, which agreed to provide about $5 million in start-up costs for iThemba.
Meanwhile, India, China and Eastern Europe had grown into major centers for contract synthesis, making that operating model less viable for South Africa. A new business plan was needed.
Once again, Liotta and his colleagues came through with solutions.
Emory researchers had found a new, faster method for synthesizing the HIV drug Abacavir. Could the method be scaled up in a way that could reduce production costs?
In addition, Emory researchers had developed novel pro-drug inhibitors for targeting latent tuberculosis — a disease that often accompanies HIV and is persistent and difficult to treat. Could the pro-drug inhibitors be turned into an easy-to-use and effective compound for treating latent TB?
Liotta arranged for iThemba to receive licensing agreements to conduct further nuts-and-bolts research into both of these important questions.
“We’re going to try and find other technologies that have been discovered at pharmaceutical companies but haven’t been pursued because the markets are in the developing world,” Liotta says of iThemba. “It’s an interesting business model. We think we can make modest profits and be even more successful every now and then, when we discover something with markets in both the developing and non-developing world.”
Beginning with a core staff of seven, iThemba is now at work on the company’s mission to bring more affordable treatments for devastating diseases to Africa and beyond. After years of his own work on the project, including dozens of trips to South Africa, Liotta remains an enthusiastic advocate of that mission.
“I like to jumpstart things,” he says. “It’s fun learning about another country and what’s important to people in different cultures. South Africa is a beautiful place to visit and the people are very friendly. It’s easy to get sucked into wanting to help.”