Alumnus Dennis Liotta, Who Transformed HIV Treatment, Shares His New Discoveries and Advice

October 31, 2022

Liotta, whose HIV medicines turned the disease from a death sentence into a manageable condition, spoke about his work on new drugs and gave tips to students.

Dennis Liotta pictured outside the ASRC
Dennis Liotta (Ph.D. '74, Chemistry), chair of the Emory Institute for Drug Development and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Emory University, invented breakthrough HIV drugs. He spoke about his latest work at the CUNY ASRC on October 28. (Photo credit: Shanté Booker)

Today, about 94% of people in the U.S. with HIV take a drug created by Graduate Center alumnus Dennis Liotta (Ph.D. ’74, Chemistry). But in the 1980s when, as a young professor at Emory University, he decided to work on an AIDS treatment, several of his senior colleagues told him he was either stupid or insane to think that his small lab could fare better than the well-funded pharmaceutical industry. Still, he forged ahead. 

“I saw in the 1980s very little activity on HIV/AIDS,” Liotta said in a lecture at the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center (CUNY ASRC) on Friday. “I also saw some the most creative people I knew getting very sick, some dying, and I just didn't feel that there was enough good things happening, and I figured I couldn't do any worse than what the big pharmaceutical companies were doing.”

Learn More About the Advanced Science Research Center

By 1990, Liotta and his team had patented emtricitabine and lamivudine, two antiretroviral medicines that transformed HIV treatment and made it possible for people with the disease to lead long and full lives. 

Liotta, who is now the chair of the Emory Institute for Drug Development and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Emory, currently holds more than 100 patents and has developed or co-developed promising therapies for cancer, strokes that are caused by bleeding on the surface of the brain, and controlling post-menopausal hot flashes. Through a nonprofit venture he funded, he has advanced the treatment of neglected viruses that afflict poorer populations and for which little funding is available. That initiative led to the surprise development of Molnupiravir, which is the only drug besides Paxlovid to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA for treating COVID-19. 

In a recent lecture and day-long visit to the CUNY ASRC, Liotta spoke to Graduate Center students and faculty about his career and his latest work to treat diseases and disorders as diverse as cancer, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. He also met with Graduate Center Ph.D. students to learn about their research, and in a brief interview, he spoke about his Graduate Center education and shared his advice for prospective and current students. Throughout his talk, interview, and meetings, he emphasized the roles that creativity, collaboration, and personal drive have played in his career.

Following is a lightly edited version of an interview with him. 

The Graduate Center: What advice do you have for current Graduate Center Ph.D. students?

Liotta: Try to be an intellectual sponge. Try to learn as many things as you can about as many disciplines as you can, but use the time in your doctoral studies to really find out what your passions are, what drives you intellectually, scientifically, what is going to be a motivator, because, ultimately, when you go out and become employed, it will be the thing that will keep you sane and keep you motivated. You're going to hit those inevitable bumps in the road, but if you're still passionate about what you're doing, it'll take you right past them and you'll never be bored with what you do. I still speed to work every day, and I love it. It's great when you have something that is really satisfying and fulfilling and intellectually challenging and exciting to you.

GC: What is the passion that drives you?

Liotta: I am into discovery — discovering new medicines that will address public health deficiencies. I want to change the world. I want to make the world a better place, and the way I think I can do that is by looking at unmet needs and finding solutions to address those unmet medical needs. 

GC: How has your Graduate Center experience influenced your career?

Liotta: I started out as an undergrad at Queens College and then decided to stay on in graduate school, so it was my first cross-university experience. I had professors that had very different styles and opinions who were all of a sudden part of my ecosystem. I started in 1970, and they had graduate classes that were televised, which was, I think, very innovative. I got exposed to a lot of very interesting, novel concepts early on before they became popular at other universities, so it was a very good experience for me. 

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Chemistry

GC: Looking back, what advice would you give to your Ph.D. self, or what advice do you wish you had been given when you were getting your Ph.D.?

Liotta: You have to be focused on your area of specialization, but not so focused that you ignore a lot of other areas. I wish I had studied more about biology and biochemistry and what was not really in very much in existence at the time, immunology, and other things of that sort.

When I started working in drug development, people thought I was insane because I didn't have much of a background in those areas and they also thought that I would be just crushed by pharmaceutical companies who had hundreds of talented scientists and a lot of money. But my passion was, “I'm going to do this.” So I worked with a lot of colleagues who were really helpful in getting me past those very awkward knowledge gaps that I didn't pursue in those early doctoral studies to the point where I was capable of reading journal articles and making intellectual contributions. 

So you need to focus on what you're doing, but you need to also have some intellectual breadth. I think the people who make the most contributions have oftentimes come into a field peripherally, and they don't have the same intellectual baggage so they can think in novel ways, and that's what having that interdisciplinary foundation can do. 

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing