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Emory’s Dennis Liotta awarded prestigious medal for his many contributions to lifesaving research
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Rajee Suri
Dennis Liotta

Researcher and inventor Dennis Liotta is the 2022 recipient of the Perkin Medal, the highest honor a scientist can receive for contributions to applied chemistry in the U.S. His discoveries include transformative treatments for HIV and hepatitis B.

Emory University researcher and inventor Dennis Liotta was named recipient of the 2022 Perkin Medal, the highest honor a scientist can receive for contributions to the field of applied chemistry in the U.S.

Liotta, who has served as executive director of the Emory Institute for Drug Development (EIDD) since its inception and is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Chemistry, has been instrumental in the creation of novel therapies, including ones that have transformed HIV from a death sentence into a chronic disease.

The Society of Chemical Industry (SCI), which confers the Perkin Medal, cited Liotta’s groundbreaking research in the biopharmaceutical space, especially antivirals, and noted how his “discovery of emtricitabine and lamivudine was pivotal in changing the tide of the AIDS epidemic.”

“It has been extremely gratifying for me to see that emtricitabine and lamivudine continue to be first line therapies for controlling HIV infections. In retrospect, the magnitude of their impact would have been hard to imagine back in 1989 when my collaborators, Drs. Raymond Schinazi and Woo-Baeg Choi, and I initiated our discovery program in HIV therapeutics,” says Liotta.

“In addition to the obvious prestige associated with this award, it is particularly satisfying to me that an award designated to recognize outstanding contributions to applied chemistry was given to an academician, rather than to someone from the commercial sector where most applied chemical innovations originate.”

Emory President Gregory L. Fenves applauds Liotta’s contributions. “This prestigious honor is a reflection of Dr. Liotta’s groundbreaking work in biopharmaceutical research and development, which has given hope to millions around the world,” Fenves says. “His exemplary career at Emory as a renowned educator, entrepreneur, medicinal chemist and humanitarian has propelled discoveries that have had a profound impact — stemming the course of global infection, improving public health and saving lives.”

Celebrating Liotta’s honor, Ravi V. Bellamkonda, Emory provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, called the award a “remarkable achievement.”

“Professor Liotta’s commitment to research excellence is exceeded only by his commitment to serving humanity through knowledge in the form of the many drug discoveries he and his teams have made at Emory,” says Bellamkonda. ”Professor Liotta’s research has directly saved many lives and we are proud of him.”

The Perkin Medal will be presented to Liotta at a dinner in his honor on Sept. 13, 2022, in Philadelphia.

Scientist as entrepreneur

Liotta was one of the leaders of the Emory research team that discovered the antiviral drug emtricitabine (Emtriva), which was approved for treating HIV in 2003. Throughout his multi-decade distinguished career, he has embodied the idea of scientist-entrepreneur, working on developing therapies that address unmet medical needs.

Emtricitabine is now used by every nine out of ten HIV/AIDS patients in the U.S., and by tens of thousands more HIV-infected persons around the globe. In addition to its use as a therapeutic, emtricitabine is also used in combination with other antivirals to protect healthy individuals from acquiring HIV — known as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP. Liotta is also a co-inventor of lamivudine (Epivir-HBV), the first therapeutic approved to treat hepatitis B. Both drugs are on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.

Liotta’s contributions are not limited to antivirals. He co-discovered samuraciclib, a CDK7 inhibitor for treating hard-to-treat cancers. Samuraciclib is in Phase 2 clinical trials and has been fast-tracked for use in two combination therapies to treat certain breast cancers. He also developed Q-122, an oral drug for controlling hot flashes in post-menopausal women, which has completed a Phase 2 trial. In addition, his collaboration with Stephen Traynelis in Emory’s Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology laid the foundation for the discovery of NP-10679, which successfully wrapped up its Phase 1 trial and has received Orphan Drug designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating subarachnoid hemorrhage, or bleeding in the space around the brain.

A life-long entrepreneur, Liotta has founded or co-founded more than 10 biopharmaceutical companies. These businesses have fostered economic growth, created numerous jobs in the biotechnology sector and brought multiple drugs to the marketplace. One prominent example is Pharmasset, which Liotta founded with his Emtriva co-inventor, Schinazi. Pharmasset, which was acquired by Gilead Sciences for $11.2 billion, developed sofosbuvir, a blockbuster, curative hepatitis C (HCV) medicine.

Liotta joined Emory in 1976 and has played a significant role in fueling its reputation as a drug discovery powerhouse, mentoring multiple generations of scientist-entrepreneurs along the way.

He and fellow scientist and inventor George Painter set up an innovative model a decade ago to bolster Emory’s drug development infrastructure and provide critical resources in the developmental continuum for new therapeutics.

That model comprises a pair of complementary Emory entities: the Emory Institute for Drug Development (EIDD) and Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory (DRIVE). The former serves as an engine for early-stage research and development and the latter acts as a partner to advance drug candidates to the next stage. EIDD and DRIVE aim to focus their attention on critical unmet medical needs rather than on market size like their commercial sector counterparts.

The focus on developing therapeutics for commercially neglected diseases positioned DRIVE and EIDD to deliver a pivotal solution to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Molnupiravir, a drug discovered and developed by EIDD and DRIVE for addressing RNA virus infections, is currently one of only two oral medications granted Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA for treating SARS-CoV-2 infections.

The importance of basic research

For a scientist with many successes, Liotta talks a lot about failure and how fundamental basic research remains to innovation.

“In academia, setbacks often lead to new discoveries because the information learned in these ‘failures’ becomes the foundation for the next generation compounds that have the properties needed to make a positive difference to patients,” says Liotta. “Many of the drugs you see in the market today started with information learned in a college chemistry lab somewhere, so never discount the importance of basic research.”

Liotta has authored over 300 peer-reviewed publications and is an inventor on over 100 issued U.S. patents. He is also the founding editor-in-chief of an American Chemical Society journal, ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters, which provides a rapid communication venue for reporting important new findings in medicinal chemistry and related fields.

A recipient of several teaching awards, including the Williams Teaching Award and the Thomas Jefferson Award — the highest faculty honor at Emory — Liotta has supervised nearly 300 undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research scientists and visiting scholars. He is a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society. He was elected to the Medicinal Chemistry Hall of Fame in 2010 and the National Academy of Inventors in 2014.

Liotta served as the associate director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research for over a decade. He is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the National Cancer Institute-Chemical Biology Consortium at Emory. Beyond his roles at Emory, Liotta has for over two decades initiated outreach activities to cultivate the next generation of African scientists, providing them with skills required to address healthcare needs in the continent. To further the work, he co-founded the Advancing Healthcare Innovation in Africa program with Emory’s general counsel, Steve Sencer.

Reflecting on the impact of his work, Liotta says, “My personal metric continues to focus on how my discoveries can improve the health of the public. The drugs discovered in my lab have not only saved many lives but have positively impacted the quality of life of the patients that were treated by them. I remain committed to continuing our quest for discovering novel therapeutics to address unmet medical needs for as long as I am able.”

About the Society of Chemical Industry’s Perkin Medal

The annual award is recognized as the highest honor given for outstanding work in applied chemistry in the United States. It commemorates the discovery of the first synthetic dye (the so-called Perkin mauve) by Sir William Henry Perkin in 1856. This discovery was a significant step forward in organic chemistry that led to the birth of a major segment of the chemical industry. The SCI Perkin Medal was first awarded to Perkin at a banquet held by the SCI in New York in 1906. Since then, more than 100 such awards have been given to notable scientists. 

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