May 5, 2011

Commencement 2011: Thomas Jefferson Award

Dennis Liotta transfers the excitement of chemistry to his vision and teaching

Dennis Liotta

Dennis Liotta grew up in an Italian section of Brooklyn, where he was intrigued by chemistry from an early age. His first role model was his brother, Charles, 12 years older and now a chemist at Georgia Tech.

"Chemists don't just take what nature gives us," says Liotta, the Samuel Dobbs Candler Professor of Chemistry. "We take small building blocks and combine them together to create new components. It's a wonderful and important skill, both challenging and thrilling."

Liotta received the 2011 Thomas Jefferson Award, the University's top recognition for significant service to the institution through personal activities, influence and leadership.

When Liotta joined Emory in 1976, it was "a very fine regional institution with some pockets of excellence, but no one would have called it a major research university," he recalls. The next year, James Laney became president of Emory and Liotta found his second role model. Liotta credits Laney for garnering the 1979 gift of $105 million in Coca-Cola stock from the Woodruff family.

"Think how many choices the Woodruffs had for donating that money," Liotta says. "But they realized that Jim Laney was a visionary who could transform the University, and as a consequence, the city and the region. He is one of my heroes."

Medicinal chemistry

Liotta would soon apply some of that visionary spirit to his own work as an organic chemist. By 1988, AIDS had become a major concern, but available treatments were not effective. Although Liotta did not have a background in drug discovery, "I decided I needed to do something," he recalls. "I was a fairly decent chemist and I thought that I could at least make some of the HIV treatment compounds more efficient."

In collaboration with postdoctoral researcher Woo-Baeg Choi and Emory virologist Raymond Schinazi, Liotta developed Emtriva, a breakthrough antiviral drug for the treatment of HIV, now used by more than 90 percent of HIV/AIDS patients in the United States, and by thousands more around the globe. Other medicinal inventions generated by Liotta's lab over the years include therapies for everything from cancer and rheumatoid arthritis to hepatitis B.

For years, Liotta strove to establish a biotechnology company focused on the needs of the developing world. In 2008, iThemba Pharmaceuticals officially began operations in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. iThemba (pronounced e-tem'-ba) means "hope" in Zulu.

iThemba is just one component of Liotta's effort to foster what he considers a vital, missing element in global health—human capital in the developing world. He also spearheads the Emory Global Health Drug Discovery Program, which brings South African scholars here for hands-on research training.

Despite his success as a medicinal chemist, Liotta says his first love remains teaching.

"When I first started at Emory, my first two publications were done with undergraduates. That was kind of cool," he says. "I've probably had more than 150 undergraduates work with me since. When they first come in, they don't know a lot, but they're wildly enthusiastic. They really want to learn, and they tend to work very hard."

Being a good teacher is all about good communication, Liotta says. "I think that's also an important component of research, to be able to translate your ideas effectively and get people excited about them."

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