Jerome P. Horwitz, PhD., the Karmanos Cancer Institute researcher who first found AZT while searching for a cancer fighting agent, has died of heart failure in a hospital just outside of his hometown Detroit. He was 93.
With his research based in 'rational' organic chemistry, Horwitz was searching for and synthesizing compounds that could become powerful weapons for the war on cancer. In 1964, his research found what he initially thought to be a failure toward that specific goal, but two decades later AZT, azidothymidine, was proven to be the first successful drug to delay the consequences of HIV/AIDS.
Since he considered AZT a failed attempt, he wrote up the research so that others could benefit, but did not patent this new drug.
"AZT hadn't worked in his cancer research, so he shelved it and went back to work," recalls Gloria Heppner, PhD., former colleague and Associate Vice-President for Research at Wayne State University. "He mused, why waste money on a patent?"
Then came the surprise. More than 22 years later in the 1980s, the very AZT that Horwitz found in his crowded laboratory at the Michigan Cancer Institute (which is now the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute) became the primary ingredient in an "AIDS cocktail" of antiretroviral drugs. This treatment was prescribed to tens of thousands of suffering and scared patients.
AZT acted as a Trojan horse that coaxed its way into HIV virus cells and then blocked their multiplication, at least for a while. The virus would then evolve and AZT become less effective at the originally prescribed level. Today, other less toxic compounds have become the primary ingredient in what has become known simply as "the cocktail." Scientists, researchers, patients and advocates still consider AZT to be the basis, the origin for what has become a more manageable disease.
Bill Thomas of Royal Oak, Michigan one of the seven original founders of AIDS WALK Detroit, said Horwitz's research "saved so many lives in so many ways. His talent was undeniable and his discovery was revolutionary. He was one of the quiet heroes, you know? And, there's just no way that my saying thank you to his family could ever be enough."
Horwitz is survived by his wife of 63 years, Sharon, whom he met at a wedding, their two daughters and their five grandchildren. His nephew James Hiller, President of Hiller's Markets, said his uncle was a man, that by his own account, led a very full and happy life.
"My uncle frequently said that his greatest achievement in life was his family," Hiller said.
"His daughters, grandchildren, their successes and then the work he had done as a scientist. He was very proud of being an organic chemist who was using scientific method to find drugs to beat cancer."
Hiller added, "He wasn't frustrated when an experiment failed. He was at his essence a teacher, a clever, gentle guy with a lovely singing voice, who was looking for that magical compound to help people. Just help people."
His greatest legacy may be that today, when a patient hears the HIV diagnosis, they can continue planning for a future. As Bill Thomas said, "These are the heroes we cannot forget."
Donations may be made in Horwitz's honor at Karmanos.org.