New York Times Profiles Yale Professor Who Discovered Stavudine
Following Bristol-Myers Squibb's recent decision to allow South Africa to obtain the patent for its AIDS drug Zerit at no cost, today's New York Times features an interview with Dr. William Prusoff, the Yale professor who developed the drug in the early 1980s. Prusoff was "jubilant" over Bristol-Myers' decision to increase South Africa's access to Zerit, also known as stavudine or d4T. During the recent "hullabaloo" over AIDS drug prices, Prusoff said that Zerit should be made "freely available to underdeveloped countries, either through the largesse of its distributor ... or through the use of cheaper generic equivalents." Prusoff added that he would like to see greater efforts made to increase developing countries' access to AIDS medicines. "[P]erhaps it would be good if the major industrial countries donated money to WHO, who would buy the drug from the pharmaceutical firms at a reduced price, and then an organization like Doctors Without Borders would be responsible for distributing the drug in Africa, with the clear understanding that in no way [are the drugs] to get out to be imported here, thereby undercutting sales," he suggested. Prusoff added that while this scenario "probably [has] a flaw somewhere ... something has to be done" to solve the "acute" problem of access to AIDS drugs in Africa. Prusoff said, however, that drug firms should not be expected to give away all of their products. "[T]hey're in it for income. You can't fault them for that, really. They do it and society benefits a tremendous amount because they put the product out to marketplace where the public can buy it. The question is whether they have to charge as much as they do for putting it out," Prusoff said. He added that while generic drug firms can "be big about" offering cheaper prices for AIDS drugs, they also "didn't make the tremendous investment that the pharmaceutical firms did" to develop the drugs.
From Lab to Market
Prusoff first started working on antiviral drugs in the 1950s, when he synthesized idoxuridine, the first antiviral drug ever approved by the FDA. He later investigated other molecules that could be used as anticancer agents. While many of these compounds turned out to be "useless" in fighting cancer, they "held enormous promise against HIV." Stavudine was one of these "failed cancer drug[s]" that was "abandoned" in the 1950s. In the early 1980s, Prusoff and another Yale researcher, Dr. Tai-shun Lin, resynthesized the molecule, which Yale patented in their names, for use against HIV infection. The university then worked out a contract with Bristol-Myers, under which the university would hold the patent for using the drug to treat people with HIV, while the drug firm would hold the patent for the methods devised to produce the drug in large quantities. Yale currently makes about $40 million annually from stavudine sales, and Prusoff also earns "in the millions" of dollars each year from the drug's profits. But Prusoff indicated that if the patent release reduced his own personal income, "It's fine with me. ... It's far more important that the drug becomes widely available. I'm very, very happy about this decision" (Zuger, New York Times, 3/20).