Alumnus Dennis Liotta, who transformed HIV treatment, shares his new findings and advice


Today, about 94% of people living with HIV in the United States take a drug created by Graduate Center alumnus Dennis Liotta (Ph.D. ’74, Chemistry). But in the 1980s, when as a young professor at Emory University he decided to work on an AIDS treatment, several of his senior colleagues told him he was either stupid or crazy. to think that his small laboratory could fare better than the well-funded pharmaceutical industry. Still, he went ahead.

“I saw in the 1980s very little HIV/AIDS activity,” Liotta said during a lecture at the Graduate Center’s Advanced Science Research Center (CUNY ASRC) on Friday. “I’ve also seen some of the most creative people I know get really sick, some die, and I just didn’t feel like enough good things were happening, and I thought to myself, I couldn’t do worse than what the big pharmas were doing.”

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In 1990, Liotta and his team patented emtricitabine and lamivudine, two antiretroviral drugs that transformed the treatment of HIV and enabled people with the disease to lead long and full lives.

Liotta, who is now president of the Emory Institute for Drug Development and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in Emory’s Department of Chemistry, currently holds more than 100 patents and has developed or co-developed promising therapies for cancer, stroke brain damage caused by bleeding on the surface of the brain and the control of post-menopausal hot flashes. Through a nonprofit he funded, he advanced the treatment of overlooked viruses that afflict the poorest populations and for which little funding is available. This initiative led to the surprise development of Molnupiravir, which is the only drug besides Paxlovid to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA for the treatment of COVID-19.

During a recent conference and one-day visit to the CUNY ASRC, Liotta spoke to students and faculty at the Graduate Center about her career and her latest work in treating diseases and disorders as diverse as cancer. , epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke. He also met with Graduate Center Ph.D. students to learn more about their research, and in a brief interview he talked about his training at the Graduate Center and shared his advice for prospective and current students. Throughout his speech, interviews and meetings, he emphasized the roles that creativity, collaboration and personal drive have played in his career.

Here is a slightly edited version of an interview with him.

The Graduate Center: What advice do you have for the current Graduate Center PhD? students?

Liotta: Try to be an intellectual sponge. Try to learn as much as you can about as many disciplines as you can, but use your doctoral study time to really find out what your passions are, what motivates you intellectually, scientifically, what’s going to be a motivator, because that, ultimately, when you go out and become employed, that’s going to be the thing that keeps you sane and keeps you motivated. You’re going to hit those inevitable bumps in the road, but if you’re still passionate about what you’re doing, it’ll take you right ahead and you’ll never get bored with what you’re doing. I always speed up at work every day, and I love it. It’s great when you have something that’s really satisfying and fulfilling and intellectually challenging and exciting for you.

GC: What is your passion?

Liotta: I’m into discovery – discovering new drugs that will address public health deficiencies. I want to change the world. I want to make the world a better place, and I believe I can achieve that by looking at unmet needs and finding solutions to address those unmet medical needs.

GC: How has your experience at the Graduate Center influenced your career?

Liotta: I started my undergraduate studies at Queens College and then decided to pursue graduate studies. So it was my first interuniversity experience. I had teachers who had very different styles and opinions and suddenly became part of my ecosystem. I started in 1970, and they had graduate courses that were televised, which I think was very innovative. I was exposed to a lot of very interesting new concepts early on before they became popular at other universities, so it was a very good experience for me.

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GC: Looking back, what advice would you give to your PhD? yourself, or what advice would you have liked to have received when you obtained your doctorate?

Liotta: You should be focused on your area of ​​expertise, but not so focused that you ignore many other areas. I wish I had studied more biology and biochemistry and what didn’t really exist at the time, immunology and things like that.

When I started working in drug development people thought I was crazy because I didn’t have a lot of experience in those areas and they also thought I would just be run over by pharmaceutical companies who had hundreds of talented scientists and lots of money. . But my passion was, “I’m going to do this.” So I worked with a lot of colleagues who really helped me overcome those very embarrassing knowledge gaps that I hadn’t pursued in those early doctoral studies to the point where I was able to read journal articles and d to make intellectual contributions.

So you have to focus on what you’re doing, but you also have to have some intellectual breadth. I think the people who make the most contributions have often come from a peripheral field, and they don’t have the same intellectual background so they can think in new ways, and that’s what this interdisciplinary foundation can do.

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