It wasn’t that long ago — 1987, to be precise — that U.S. Surgeon General Everett Koop predicted the HIV/AIDS epidemic would kill 100 million people by the year 2000. That didn’t happen. Instead, about 34 million people are living with HIV, according to AVERT, an international health organization, and a 2006 study published in the British medical journal QJM found that patients who are diagnosed as HIV-positive before developing full-blown AIDS now have an average life expectancy of 21.5 years. Once, the public faces of HIV were dead movie stars, artists and musicians; today, it’s pro basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who by all accounts is still in excellent health, two decades after his diagnosis.
Who do we have to thank for this startling turnabout? Medical researcher Jerome P. Horwitz, who back in 1964 discovered AZT, a medication that prevents HIV from replicating and lowers the amount of the virus in the bloodstream. Combined with other medications, AZT has helped turn HIV from an automatic death sentence into what in many cases is a manageable condition.
Here are five surprising facts about Horwitz, who died Sept. 6 at age 93 in Bloomfield Township, Mich.
- Horwitz didn’t start out as a drug researcher. After earning his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1948, Horwitz initially worked in research on rocket fuels. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that he joined the Michigan Cancer Foundation and Wayne State Medical School as a cancer researcher.
- When Horwitz developed AZT, the drug initially was viewed as a failure. Back in 1964, the HIV virus hadn’t even been discovered. Horwitz was trying to develop a cancer drug. AZT turned out not to be effective against cancer. But decades later, the tactic he’d dreamed up — tricking cancer cells into adding booby-trapped molecules to their DNA chains that hindered their runaway growth — turned out to work against HIV.
- Horwitz didn’t actually think of using AZT against HIV. Horwitz told colleagues at Wayne State that AZT and other similar compounds he’d developed were “a very interesting set of compounds that were waiting for the right disease.” But the boxes containing his research gathered dust for nearly 25 years before two other researchers, Samuel Broder and Hiroaki Mitsuya, discovered that AZT stopped HIV from multiplying in cultured human cells.
- Horwitz never made any money from his discovery. As this Scientific American blog post details, Horowitz never patented AZT. Thus, he didn’t share in the windfall that pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome got from AZT, which in 1992 alone amounted to $400 million. In fact, Horwitz didn’t receive a royalty check until he was 86, and it was for another drug treatment that he’d developed to treat tumors.
- Horwitz never envisioned that AZT would turn out to be a primary weapon against HIV. In a 1992 speech to commemorate World AIDS Awareness Week, Horwitz said that AZT was “not a panacea” for HIV. Instead, he envisioned it as a stopgap treatment that would be made obsolete by the development of an anti-HIV vaccine, a development he believed — incorrectly — was just over the horizon.
Here’s a video explaining how AZT works.