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$5 million granted to VCU Engineering Professor to lower AIDS drug costs

Richmond, Virginia - A Virginia Commonwealth University engineering professor has received a $5 million grant to develop a more cost-effective way to manufacture two important drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS.

“Our overarching goal is to increase the availability of these drugs,” said B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D., a professor in the VCU School of Engineering and chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering. “There’s a finite amount of funds available to purchase these drugs, but if we can reduce the cost then we can increase the availability.”

With this grant, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested nearly $10 million in funding to support a multidisciplinary project led by B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D. and chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering. The project, Medicines for All Initiative, seeks to streamline drugs manufacturing to treat HIV and AIDS in developing countries. Research is being conducted in partnership with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and collaborators at MIT and the University of Washington.

As part of the 18-month grant, Gupton’s team will find ways to drive down the costs of manufacturing the AIDS drugs tenofovir and darunavir. Darunavir is known as a second-line therapy and is often prescribed once a patient develops a resistance to first-line therapies.

“Over the lifetime of a HIV-infected patient, they may develop resistance. So they need to have these other drugs available as a backup,” Gupton said. “But the problem …[with] second-line treatments [like darunavir is] the volume of supply can sometimes be smaller and so they can be prohibitively expensive for many patients.”

The grant follows an earlier $4.4 million grant from the Gates Foundation in support of Gupton’s work to reduce the manufacturing cost of nevirapine, a first-line therapy for the treatment of AIDS.

In January, Gupton announced that his team has successfully developed a much more cost- effective way to produce the starting materials of nevirapine, thereby allowing pharmaceutical manufacturers to produce greater quantities of the drug, and expanding access in the countries that need it most, such as South Africa.

“The focus is on the global economy,” Gupton said. “It’s not as big of an issue here in the United States from the standpoint of infected patients, but the rate of infection is still growing [globally] at a rate of about 14 percent a year. So, particularly in these other emerging economies, it’s a real issue.”

Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering, said the school is proud of the innovative work being done by the Medicines for All Initiative.

“The School of Engineering is proud of the Gupton team and its role in improving the health and welfare of not only Americans but also the global community,” she said. “Medicines for All is part of a larger VCU initiative in pharmaceutical engineering. We look forward to continuing the participation of our students’, faculty’s and staff’s expertise to this endeavor.”

Alongside Gupton, the project involves several collaborators across the country, including Timothy F. Jamison, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Chemistry at MIT, and Brian Marquardt, Ph.D., head of the Center for Process Analysis & Control at the University of Washington.

This new phase of the Medicines for All Initiative, Gupton said, builds on the project’s earlier success and demonstrates that the team is heading in the right direction.

“We are applying the same principles that we used with nevirapine for these new drug targets,” Gupton said. “The lesson that we’re taking away from our initial work is that we must be on the right track and this new investment from the foundation just reinforces that.”

The project, Gupton added, is already making an impact in the world.

“The really nice thing about this project is that from the time you come to a solution to a problem and when it actually gets implemented is a lot shorter than you often see in academia,” he said. “Part of that is because we have this network of the foundation and the Clinton Health Access Initiative that is facilitating these innovations and improvements out of our laboratory and into the marketplace.”