Dr. Jerome P. Horwitz, the medical researcher who synthesized AZT—the first effective drug treatment against HIV/AIDS—died on September 6 after suffering from pneumonia and a heart attack. He was 93.
While the role of AZT, or azidothymidine, in helping to stem the AIDS epidemic that tore through the gay community in the 1980s is widely known, Horwitz actually synthesized the drug back in the 1960s while working in the medical labs at Wayne State University as a possible treatment for cancer. It was a dud—against cancer, anyway. The chemical compound failed to affect leukemia-stricken lab rats, and acrestfallen Horwitz moved on.
Decades later, though, in the mid-1980s, scientists found it worked against the retrovirus known as HIV. The FDA approved AZT for human testing after just one week of deliberation, and it was first prescribed publically in 1987.
But AZT came at a high price—literally, costing more than $8,000 for a year’s supply—as well as toxic side effects that had some wondering if the cure was as bad the disease. It was later paired with other medications to form a “drug cocktail” that improved mortality rates. Today those cocktails have largely been supplanted by other drugs with better results and less drastic side-effects.
In some ways, AZT was more a cure for fatalism than AIDS: “AZT stood up and said, ‘Stop your pessimism,’” Samuel Broder, who helped discover AZT’s potential in the 1980s, told The Washington Post. “‘Stop your sense of futility. Go back to the lab. Go back to development. Go back to clinical trials. Things will work.’ ”
Photo: Wayne State University