B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D., and Perrer Tosso, Ph.D.
Photo by Dan Wagner, courtesy VCU School of Engineering

Medicines for All team set to save lives globally

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One time while visiting family in his native Benin, Perrer Tosso, Ph.D., became sick and went to the pharmacy to buy ciprofloxacin, the antibiotic more commonly known as Cipro.

The exorbitant amount he paid didn’t line up with the price he would normally pay in the United States where he has health insurance.

“The drugs are effective, but they are just expensive,” said Tosso, a postdoctoral fellow at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering. “And when people need them, because of the cost, they cannot buy them. The drugs are there. … When I was growing up, we could afford the drugs. But you have millions who cannot and you have people dying.”

Tosso wants to lower the costs of all lifesaving medications worldwide. He is working toward that goal at the School of Engineering’s Medicines for All Institute — a $25 million initiative funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that works on a wide range of essential global health treatments, increasing access to lifesaving medications for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases.

Tosso came to VCU in 2015 to work with B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D., the Floyd D. Gottwald Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering. Gupton is principal investigator of the Medicines for All project.

“Frank is the leader in this field,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Engineering and the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Chair in Biomedical Engineering. “Before he joined VCU, he was in industry. He was already believed to be the leader in the field when he came here. He realized that you could lower the cost of medications for everyone if you could reduce the cost of the component parts, which is one of the few things here in the U.S. that we can actually do to lower the cost of medicines for all.”

Illustration by Hillary Kuhn and Amanda Porcella, VCU School of Engineering.
Illustration by Hillary Kuhn and Amanda Porcella, VCU School of Engineering.

Over the past four years under Gupton’s leadership, the Medicines for All initiative has developed an innovative model that reduces the cost of manufacturing AIDS treatments by accelerating the creation of more efficient ways of synthesizing the active ingredients in the medications. Until the establishment of the new institute, Gupton only had the capacity to work on one drug at a time. The multimillion dollar institute will allow his team to look at multiple drugs in parallel.

"I'm really proud of this. This is a big deal here in Virginia," Gov. Terry McAuliffe said at the Aug. 24 news conference announcing the grant. "I love VCU, I've been a huge advocate. … It's a $6 billion asset that we have in Virginia, the great work that they do. I cannot thank you [enough] for what you do to make this the greatest university in America. … The research projects that VCU does benefits directly the commonwealth of Virginia. And that's a big distinction. And so I am so appreciative of all the great work that has gone on here and appreciate everything and all you've done."

Gupton’s experience and reputation allowed him to attract big talent to the Medicines for All Institute. Prior to coming to VCU, Eugene Choi, Ph.D., executive director of the institute, spent 10 years at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he helped create new programs on developing innovative and disruptive technologies.

The two met a few years ago and stayed in contact. Gupton’s vision aligned with Choi’s interests, which helped attract Choi to Medicines for All.

There aren’t that many people in the world who think the way Frank does in terms of chemistry.

“There aren’t that many people in the world who think the way Frank does in terms of chemistry,” Choi said. “Most people think chemistry has to be more complicated than it needs to be. Frank, largely based off his industry experience, realizes that you have to be as practical and simplistic as you can in order to drive down costs for drugs and medicines. … His foresight in terms of knowing where the major opportunities are and identifying major cost drivers for drug manufacturing is really key here.”

Gupton went to college on a basketball scholarship, but realized after his freshman year that he wasn’t going to become a professional basketball player.

“So I needed to start studying,” he said. “I was very fortunate because I took chemistry at a point in time when we had some really good professors and the general chemistry professor I got was outstanding.”

The professor invited Gupton to conduct research with him over the summer. Gupton said the experience changed his life.

“All of a sudden, the things I was learning in the laboratory I could apply to classroom principles,” he said. That stayed with him when he joined academia. “I think this whole idea about applied research in an educational environment is absolutely essential in the 21st century to be able to get students excited about chemistry.”

Photo by Dan Wagner, courtesy VCU School of Engineering
Photo by Dan Wagner, courtesy VCU School of Engineering

Gupton has been a part of the VCU School of Engineering since its start more than 20 years ago, first as a member of the advisory board when he was executive director of chemical processes for Boehringer Ingelheim. After retiring from industry, Gupton joined the faculty of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering and served as interim chair. When Boyan joined as dean in 2013, she held an international search and, not surprisingly, Gupton was the clear choice.

“He brings a combination of scientific brilliance and practicality, which makes him effective across the acdemic community as well as industry,” she said.

Working in an academic environment and developing new technology that can be quickly implemented in the marketplace is the goal of Gupton’s research group. Gupton and his team are excited about the opportunity to take a research project and get it commercialized in a way that actually improves the quality of life for people around the world.

“The great thing about my research group is that they all understand the magnitude of the problem and they're very self-motivated to [push] individual projects to be successful because they realize what the impact will be if they aren't,” Gupton said.

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering has been awarded a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish the Medicines for All Institute and to fund the institute’s work on a wide range of essential global health treatments. With this grant, the Institute can help increase access to lifesaving medications for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases around the world.

It is that mindset of making research more focused and pragmatic that drew Tosso to work with Gupton.

“He's not just doing research to prove a point but doing research so that whatever you produce can get to the market — not in 10 or 20 years but quickly,” Tosso said. 

Tosso likens the research to cooking, but at a microscopic level.

“You have different ingredients,” he said, “and based on the target molecule that you need, you know which ingredient to start from. You call them starters. Then, from that point on you just decide, based on the chemical properties, which other ingredients you add or maybe not add, which solvent you would use to just cook it and make it happen.

“What particularly hit my interest was the fact that you can make drugs to save lives,” Tosso added. “I believe deeply that a lot of problems in humanity can be solved if you have medicines. … I do believe that some of the diseases like cancer need to be tackled and we need to find a drug for them and cure them so that people don't die.”

The institute’s impact expands well beyond its three target diseases — HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis — as the process that reduces the cost per kilogram of specific drug targets can be applied to other medicines as well. While meeting an urgent health care need today, the Medicines for All Institute also signals dramatic change in future pharmaceutical manufacturing technologies.

“I just want to emphasize how unique an opportunity this is, not only for the university, but also, I think, just for broader society,” Choi said. “You hear on the news every day of arbitrary drugs — their prices skyrocket for no reason at all or people can’t access them. And then, obviously, with the health care debate, people’s lives are at stake. So here, within the institute, I like to think that we are making our own impact in the health care industry. I think this also provides a special opportunity within the university setting to create and train the next generation of scientists and engineers. And really think about how we do chemistry, how we make medicines differently than we did previously.”


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