Q&A: Phillip Furman, leader in fight against AIDs

Phillip Furman, co-inventor of the first drug effective against the HIV virus, has been inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame in a gala ceremony in downtown Tampa. 
The 73-year-old alumnus of the University of South Florida, who earned his master’s degree in microbiology from USF in 1971, also worked to develop drugs for treating herpes, and Hepatitis B and C.

While at USF he was mentored by the late John Betz, Ph.D., a USF professor and microbiologist, who encouraged him to earn his Ph.D. and study animal viruses. He went on to earn a doctorate at Tulane University and later worked for key biotech organizations including Burroughs Wellcome, Triangle Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Pharmasset, Inc.

He was with Burroughs Wellcome at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina when he began retrovirus testing along with a core collaborative team who chose compounds to test based on their expertise. 

AZT, produced by Burroughs Wellcome, marked the beginning of an era of hope for AIDs sufferers, who now face a disease that can be managed long term instead of a death sentence.

The holder of 20 U.S. patents, Furman is one of seven new inductees who join inventors honored at the Inventors Walk in USF Research Park. They were recognized September 7th at the 5th Annual Induction Ceremony and Gala at the Hilton Tampa Downtown.

Also inducted were: Sara Blakely, inventor of Spanx pantyhose; the late Edwin Link, who created a flight simulator in the 1920s; Emery Brown, an anesthesiology researcher; Richard Houghten, who has conducted drug discovery-related research; Sudipta Seal, a materials manufacturing expert; and Herbert Wertheim, an optometrist who developed lenses to help prevent cataracts and other eye diseases.

Furman, who is living in St. Augustine, was nominated for the honor by USF Professor James Garey, founding chair of USF’s Phillip Furman when he received an honorary doctorate from USF.Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology. The inductees were chosen by a committee of Florida research and innovation leaders following an open nomination process.

Nominees had to have at least one U.S. patent and a connection to Florida.

83 Degrees Media talked to Furman about the backstory of AZT and other highlights of his research career. 

83D: How did the breakthrough of AZT come about? What was your role as co-inventor?

PF: When we first heard about AIDs, and what people were seeing, it was our belief that a virus was involved. We [myself, David Barry, and Sandra Lehrman] obviously didn’t know what kind of virus.

We started testing for compounds against the retrovirus. It was my belief that eventually a human retrovirus would be discovered that would infect humans. 

It was suggested that we stop working on that, that it probably wouldn’t be that important. We put it in the freezer in case we ever needed them again. It sat there for a few years -- then HIV/AIDs was discovered.

We didn’t have the capability of working with the AIDs virus, so we basically brought out the surrogate assay and set that up again. We identified AZT as a very potential inhibiter of the surrogate viruses. We believed, based on those results, that it would be very effective against HIV. 

We sent AZT (and several other compounds) to three other laboratories that were working with the HIV virus and had them test it, so we could see exactly how active it was against the HIV virus. It was very active.

83D: Are you continuing to do research on AIDs?

PF: No, I’m retired. In fact, after I worked on HIV, I began working on Hepatitis B and, finally, in the last six years of my career, Hepatitis C.

AZT is still used somewhat, but there are other combination therapies out there that are being used much more extensively. The therapies have improved so much over AZT and the other early therapies that came out.

Combination therapy is really the key to keeping HIV under control.

83D: Tell us about some of your other research.

PF: I worked on several compounds that were developed and marketed for Hepatitis B. 

For Hepatitus C, I oversaw the pre-clinical development. The drug was first synthesized by Dr. Mike Sofia. It cures over 90 percent of patients with Hepatitis C -- a real cure. It actually is the first chronic viral disease we’ve been able to cure with an antiviral drug.

83D: What suggestions do you have for people who want to be scientists? How can they be a success?

PF: I think they need to have a passion for doing research -- really love what they are doing, believe in themselves, believe in what they’re doing. Almost first and foremost, they need to learn everything they possibly can if they want to be successful in drug discovery.

I was hired to set up a virology lab.  I developed a passion for doing drug discovery. I just didn’t focus on learning about viruses. I learned many other things: I learned pharmacology, I learned toxicology, I learned whatever you needed to learn to discover and develop a drug.

Of course, I had a great mentor that helped -- Dr. Trudy Elion. She was my boss for my first 10 years at Burroughs Wellcome. She was actually a Nobel Laureate for her work in the discovery and development of anti-cancer drugs and some others as well.

83D: How important were mentors for your work?

PF: I think they made a tremendous impact on my career and they helped me to really develop this love of doing research -- and the passion for doing drug discovery.

Dr. Betz, Dr. Elion and others showed a tremendous love for doing research. You just can’t help but pick that up.

Learn more about Furman and other 2018 inductees here.
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune