By Lauren Newkirk Maynard
In 1984, a retrovirus called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) had just been identified as the cause of a contagious, deadly syndrome called AIDS. At the time, Janet Litster Rideout (PhD ’68) was an organic chemist working in medicinal chemistry and drug design at the North Carolina research lab of Burroughs Wellcome Co., a British pharmaceutical company that tested thousands of known chemical compounds for potential pharmaceutical uses. “We worked mostly with DNA and RNA. Retroviruses were a new target for the company,” says Rideout, who began working at Burroughs shortly before graduating from UB.
Rideout and her lab team tested many compounds in search of a cure for AIDS. “It was a very strenuous but exciting time, and we were going as fast as we could,” she recalls, noting that Burroughs Wellcome Co. was just a small subsidiary, and the amount of work required to identify the right compound immense. Meanwhile, AIDS was becoming “a death sentence.”
They eventually narrowed the search to 14 compounds, then just one: AZT. The drug had been developed 20 years earlier by a Michigan cancer researcher as a potential tumor-fighter, but it was shelved when it failed to show promise. Rideout’s team determined that AZT could destroy a non-human virus very similar to HIV. “It didn’t work for common viruses, but we found it was very effective against the enzymes that certain retroviruses use to reproduce,” she says.
The initial formulation was rushed to market amid considerable controversy over its price, toxic side effects and the FDA’s initial insistence on conducting placebo trials instead of giving AZT to all infected subjects—much of which was documented in the 2013 Oscar-winning film “Dallas Buyers Club.” But AZT was and remains the most important discovery in the history of AIDS treatment. Now dosed much lower, and combined with a more effective cocktail of antivirals to help patients manage their disease symptoms, the drug has saved millions of lives since it received FDA approval in 1987.
Rideout, now retired after 26 years at Burroughs Wellcome Co. and five years at Inspire Pharmaceuticals, visited UB in March to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Alumni Association for her role in unearthing and testing AZT against HIV. Though she is modest about her place in history, her work at Burroughs (now GlaxoSmithKline) put her at the vanguard of the relatively new field of retroviral medicine. Just four other scientists—including two other women—share the AZT patent with Rideout, who now has more than 40 U.S. patents to her name.