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VCU Receives $5 million Gates Grant to Change Affordability of HIV/AIDS Drugs.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017  
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The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering’s Medicines for All project is aiming to make it cheaper to purchase Dolutegravir, a relatively new, effective drug that treats HIV/AIDS. According to the National Institutes of Health, 30 tablets of the drug costs more than $1,700.

The School of Engineering received about $5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a more cost-effective way to manufacture Dolutegravir. It is the third such grant the foundation has awarded the school. The lead investigator, B. Frank Gupton, professor and chair in the VCU Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, said the drug is likely to become a first-line therapy for HIV/AIDS.

“It doesn’t have a lot of the side effects other (HIV/AIDS) drugs have,” Gupton said. Many drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS have life-threatening side effects, such as liver dysfunction and neurological problems.

Developing an affordable drug without those side effects is particularly important for HIV/AIDS patients because they must take the drugs for the rest of their lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on its website that 39,513 people are newly diagnosed with HIV in the U.S. every year.

“The idea of moving people onto drugs that have fewer side effects is a really important element to long-term health care for HIV patients,” Gupton said.

The Medicines for All program reinvents the processes by which the drugs are made, Gupton explained. The team considers less expensive starting materials, which can translate to major costs in the end, and then tries to increase the production’s overall yield so more drugs can be made for less money. “With nevirapine, we increased the overall yield of that process from 58 percent to 92 percent,” Gupton said.

Once the work is complete, the Medicines for All program has worked with the Clinton Health Access Initiative to transition the production processes to the manufacturers and make the drugs available to consumers.

The Gates Foundation has funded similar work by the Medicines for All project twice in the past, first to make the drugs nevirapine and then tenofovir more cost-effective. “We got a grant in 2014 to look at reducing the cost of nevirapine, and we were able to make a significant reduction in the cost of that drug,” Gupton said. “The new improvements were immediately implemented and reduced the global health care cost for that drug very quickly.”

Gupton said it is too early to tell how much of an impact the school’s work could have on Dolutegravir’s cost. But its work with nevirapine reduced the cost from $200 a kilo to $60 , and significantly reduced the amount of waste generated in the manufacturing process.

“One of the things they’ve found with the work we’ve done on the previous two drugs is if we can actually make an impact in reducing the operating costs to manufacture the drugs sooner after the drug gets launched, the benefits and access to the drugs and uptick in the marketplace becomes a whole lot more effective,” he said.

The previous two drugs the School of Engineering worked on were fairly mature, Gupton added. Dolutegravir is relatively new, “So we can have a bigger impact quicker,” he said.

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