November 28, 2012 | The Editors

Tue Nguyen: developing needed drugs

Born in Vietnam, Dr. Tue Nguyen left his home country after the Vietnam War to continue his education in the United States. He worked as a stock boy in a New York City pharmacy and later spent 22 years developing anticancer drugs for a large biotech company. In 2006 he joined OneWorld Health—now PATH’s drug development global program—and since 2009 has led the development of semisynthetic artemisinin, a key ingredient in malaria treatment. The drug will begin commercial production in 2013 and will offer patients in poor countries a stable, affordable supply of lifesaving malaria treatment.

Portrait of Tue Nguyen
Dr. Tue Nguyen leads development of semisynthetic artemisinin, part of the preferred treatment for malaria. Photo: OneWorld Health.

Tue also leads development of a new first-in-class drug to treat acute secretory diarrhea, which will be tested in phase 2 clinical trials next year. He spoke to us about his interest in pharmacology and the challenge of taking an idea from paper to patient.

Q. What first sparked your interest in pharmaceuticals?

A. I grew up in Vietnam. I really wanted to go into medical school, but I took the entry exam at several schools and ended up in pharmacy school. I realized after my graduate studies in pharmaceutical chemistry in the US that it probably fit me better. I’m more interested in the science and in creating and developing new treatments. The impact that you can have appeals to me.

Q. When did you first see how important drugs are in the developing world?

I finished college in 1973, during wartime, and got drafted into the South Vietnamese Army. I was based in a small field hospital in a small town as the pharmacist. In my spare time I got an old microscope and collected blood samples from the soldiers and from the local population, and I realized that malaria was a huge issue for everybody there. I still remember when I received the first shipment of Fansidar, an old treatment for malaria, and it was like magic potion—everybody wanted it.

Another time, a woman brought her baby into the hospital. The girl was about six months old and had a cough and fever. We gave her pediatric antibiotic syrup but the illness got worse. We realized that we had to give her a newer drug that was very expensive and that we saved for more serious illness. I gave her just three doses, and suddenly the whole illness went away. It really hit me that you have to have the right drug but that often people can’t access those drugs because they are expensive.

Q. For the last six years, you have worked on the development of semisynthetic artemisinin. What has been most challenging about the project?

When we got involved, the idea was only a scientific paper. We had to try to validate it, to prove that it could be done, and to try to scale it up to a point where we could produce tons of quantity. Taking an idea from the lab to the factory floor and eventually making something is really, really exciting but also challenging.

The other piece is that we had to create a partnership to make it happen. We had Dr. Jay Keasling’s lab at UC Berkeley and some of the postdoctoral fellows from the lab who formed a biotechnology start-up company called Amyris. The academic lab is really focused on publishing and new science. A start-up company is focused on developing a business model for themselves and proving that their technology is worth something. And we have to drive the public health mission. Eventually we got Sanofi, a big pharmaceutical company, into the group. The challenge was putting this group of partners together, coordinating their activities, and creating a common mission.

Q. What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

A. The need for treatment of neglected disease in poor people is real, and our work contributes to that. On the artemisinin project, seeing how this work will improve the availability of the drug for patients gives me great satisfaction. Naturally derived artemisinin is an agricultural product. It takes a long time to cultivate and harvest the drug, so the price of artemisinin goes up and down and the supply’s not very stable. Semisynthetic artemisinin will ensure that everyone will have the drug.

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