In a half-century love affair with science, Robert Vince has gone from mixing chemicals for rocket fuel to creating the first anti-AIDS drug ever developed specifically to fight the virus.
Trading his parents’ basement for research labs in New York, Mississippi and Minnesota, the University medicinal chemistry professor turned his childhood love of chemistry and biology into a 34-year research career.
Although Vince has researched various antibiotic, antiviral and anti-cancer compounds and owns over 20 U.S. patents, the anti-AIDS drug Ziagen is the first of Vince’s discoveries to make it to the commercial market.
The drug, manufactured and sold by Glaxo Wellcome, is based on compounds patented by Vince and research associate Mei Hua in 1988. But it took a decade-long lawsuit before the drug company would admit the drug was based on Vince’s work.
After originally snubbing Vince and the University, the company settled on a $300 million royalty package in 1999. The figure is based on the drug’s projected worldwide sales.
Ziagen works by inhibiting HIV from replicating and spreading to additional human cells.
The University will receive two-thirds of this money and must use it for research. The remaining $100 million goes to Vince and associate Hua.
The royalties and fame associated with the settlement have done nothing to dull Vince’s focus on research. The contentious settlement process has, however, sullied his willingness to trust large drug companies.
“It makes you think of whether you would want to really get involved in this process again,” Vince said. “My goal is to make things that can be turned into a useful product.”
To do this, Vince said collaboration with large drug companies is important. They are one of the few sources available to provide the capital to bring a drug from discovery, through Food and Drug Administration approval and then to the public.
Vince said it costs an average of $400 million for pharmaceutical companies to complete this process.
If friends and colleagues expect the projected multimillionaire to retire and sail around the world, they are missing how Vince’s lifelong passion for research has been re-ignited by the success.
“To me the most important thing was my identity, the scientific credit for doing the work,” Vince said. “It’s very satisfying, very enjoyable feeling, but I feel like I have to do something else now to follow up on this.”
With his royalties, Vince plans to invest for his family’s future and give to charities. He also plans to combine a portion of his money with the University’s to create a drug design center.
Vince said the center, which he said he hopes will be operational in two years, could be a part of the Academic Health Center or be a separate University entity.
He said that while the medicinal chemistry department would be responsible for designing and running the center, it would bring in people from other areas of research.
Creating the center might place Vince in an administrative role. But he and colleagues said someone else will most likely be hired to run the center to let Vince return to research.
Senior scientist Jay Brownell has handled biological testing with Vince for 24 years.
Brownell said that while Vince is a good scientist and researcher who comes up with a variety of ideas and inspires those he works with, Vince will not be happy in an administrative role.
“I know he tries like crazy to get off of committees and things like that,” Brownell said. “He certainly prefers finding out what’s going on in the scientific world and not what’s going on in the administration world.”
Rashmi Gupta, a graduate student and research assistant, has worked with Vince during the past four years.
“He’s very thorough and systematic in his research,” she said.
Though Vince has been a researcher and professor at the University since 1967, he began his work in medicinal chemistry in New York.
He studied at the State University of New York-Buffalo to be a pharmacist and worked in the summer at a drug store in his hometown.
“After working in the pharmacy and drug store, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life, you know, just filling prescriptions,” Vince said.
Vince graduated with a doctorate in medicinal chemistry and then taught briefly at the University of Mississippi before moving to Minnesota.
Justin Costley covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected]