McCormick professors receive research grant to create affordable HIV medicines

Daniel Schlessinger

Two McCormick researchers won a grant to produce cheaper HIV drugs, hoping to provide care to families in developing countries where lifesaving medications are often costly and therefore inaccessible.

Profs. Linda Broadbelt and Keith Tyo received a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Nov. 7. The Gates Foundation started the grant program in 2008 to address serious global problems in family health, which result in about 150,000 maternal deaths, 1.6 million neonatal deaths and 1.2 million stillbirths every year, according to a press release.

“There is a vital need for new and creative ideas to help mothers and children in the world’s poorest countries,” wrote Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery at the Gates Foundation, in a press release.

Tyo, a metabolic engineering expert, explained there are two types of HIV drugs: first line drugs and second line drugs. When patients with HIV do not respond to the first line drugs, they move to the second line drugs. The second line drugs, Tyo said, are much more expensive.

Using a computer program that Broadbelt co-developed six years ago, Tyo and Broadbelt are aiming to create the same molecules out of different chemicals. The organic mechanisms that scientists currently use to create the HIV drugs focus on altering certain bonds and structures to end with a very complex product. Instead of starting off with expensive, complex chemicals, Tyo and Broadbelt decided to start simple and end complex. The simple chemicals are cheaper and easier to obtain.

“The concept would be to use something really cheap, like yeast or sugar, and to be able to produce the same HIV drugs at a lower cost,” said Broadbelt, chair of the department of chemical and biological engineering.

Weinberg senior Alex Laios, co-president of the HIV/AIDS Literacy Organization at NU, said this type of research is also key for promoting HIV/AIDS awareness.

“HIV primarily affects people with lower socioeconomic status,” Laios said. “A lot of the people on campus just don’t understand what it’s like to live with HIV and how many people are affected by it.”

Tyo said he is personally driven by this social gap. He comes from a family that is passionate about humanitarianism: His father has traveled to Haiti multiple times to help the impoverished, and his sister is a doctor who has done charitable work in Latin America. Tyo said he sees the synthetic drug project as a bridge between his skills as an engineer and his dedication to global change.

“My skill set is not such that I would be particularly useful going to work in Haiti,” Tyo said. “I see what I’m good at is in biotechnology so I would like to use (that skill) to solve the problems I can solve from here in Northwestern.”

Broadbelt’s computer program uses complex mathematical equations to decide which molecules have the “right” chemistry to react and form a product. Because scientists know which biological enzymes will react with which types of chemical structures, the number of results can be massive.

“We will find literally hundreds of thousands of possible (mechanisms for drug production),” Tyo said. “It is a very challenging project.”

Of those hundreds of thousands of reactions, scientists will have only discovered about 5 percent, Broadbelt said. The researchers will have to sort through all of these previously undiscovered mechanisms to find the most efficient ones.

Other scientists have been successful when performing the same type of test on different drugs’ structures. Jay Kiesling, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, engineered a pathway to produce artemisinin, a highly effective anti-malaria drug, using yeast. Utilizing that method could reduce the cost of the drug by 30 to 60 percent, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

Tyo said he and Broadbelt will probably have a slightly more difficult job ahead of them. Artemisinin naturally occurs in a rare plant, so it has a biological derivative. However, there is no biological equivalent for the HIV drugs that Broadbelt and Tyo are trying to produce, and the pair will not be able to model their mechanism after anything that already exists.

For this stage of the grant, Tyo and Broadbelt will run the program with hopes it can give a mechanism to produce the drugs. If they are successful after 18 months, it is possible that the Grand Challenges Explorations would provide an additional $1 million grant.

The impact of Tyo’s and Broadbelt’s work might not just be in developing countries, but also in fully developed countries such as the United States. With rising healthcare costs, Tyo explained, cheaper drugs might help drive down the cost of competing drugs as well.

“Assuming we can do it, even in developed countries, I can imagine it wouldn’t be taken up,” Tyo said.

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