Jerome Horwitz, creator of AZT

Jerome Horwitz, in the lab at Wayne State University

I found this link and posted it to my Facebook page, but thought that the BIO230 students would benefit from this story as well. The obituary for Jerome Horwitz, age 93, was published in the New York Times today, and summarized his life’s work. I had not heard of Dr. Horwitz prior to reading this story, but I strongly recommend anyone interested in learning a bit about the serendipity of science to follow the link to the Times website. A quick Pubmed search turned up 69 primary literature citations, mostly dealing with his lifetime of work into antiviral and anticancer medications.

Dr. Horwitz obtained his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Michigan, and later joined the faculty in cancer research at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he remained until he retired in 2005. During the early 1960’s, he and his colleagues began to look at compounds that were analogs of the building blocks of DNA. These compounds, called dideoxythymidines, were tested by injecting them into cancer cells hoping that they would block the replication of the tumor. It was a sound premise: since cancerous cells generally go unchecked in their replication in comparison to other cells in the body, they should be most sensitive to agents which might inhibit or block DNA replication. Unfortunately, the dideoxythymidines did not have the desired effect on cancer, were consequently shelved, and Dr. Horwitz and his colleagues did not work to obtain patents on these compounds.

Moving forward to the 1980’s, a new pandemic was spreading worldwide with truly alarming speed. Infections due to Human Immunodeficiency Virus in the early 1980’s carried a very poor prognosis for patients, and initially there was no treatment. The pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome along with the National Cancer Institute of the NIH began to examine thousands of compounds for their potential against HIV infection, and found that AZT (one of the dideoxythymidines developed by Dr. Horwitz) was very effective in blocking the ability of HIV to replicate in cells. AZT and similar drugs have turned out to be the basis for a number of antiviral therapies in addition to combating AIDS.

According to an interview with Dr. Horwitz in the Chronicles of Higher Education from when he retired from Wayne State University, he said that he was angry briefly for his research teams inability to secure a patent for AZT, but that the hard feelings had long since passed. His wife remarked to the media at his passing that “He didn’t do it for the money…he wanted to make a difference.” This is something I think we can all aspire to.


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on September 21, 2012, in A bit 'o history. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Jerome Horwitz, creator of AZT.

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