Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Dr. Robert Vince
Dr. Robert Vince on his farm with one of his vintage cars.
How many millions of lives has Dr. Robert Vince saved? It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but millions certainly, if not a good deal more. Vince invents drugs, and before he invented the anti-viral drug Ziagen, now known by its generic name abacavir, HIV/AIDS was a fast death sentence. Ziagen was the first drug specifically designed to combat AIDS that worked. Vince invented other anti-viral drugs, which when taken together, can make the disease more manageable and dramatically reduce transmission of HIV from infected pregnant mothers to their babies.
According to the World Health Organization, some 12.9 million people were taking anti-viral drugs such as abacavir in 2013, and without the drug, they likely wouldn’t be with us today. Years after inventing the drug, Vince heard from an old college roommate who had AIDS and had been kept alive for decades by his anti-virals. Vince has saved millions of lives and that of his old roommate, too, who happened to be the best man at Vince’s wedding in 1961.
He looks less heroic than that.
Vince, 74, is an unassuming sort, wearing chinos and beige sweaters, eating Campbell’s chicken noodle soup lunches at his desk, and enjoying a quiet life with his colleagues, his wife, and his hobbies—old cars, very old music, and model trains. You’d never guess he could be responsible for saving your life in 20 years, perhaps with a new drug he’s invented for cancer, Ebola, or Parkinson’s.
Vince is a quiet man, but he sparks to life mainly through his lively brown eyes that twinkle when he consults one of the 45 to 60 researchers who work with him in the Center for Drug Design during any given week. The CDD is a self-funded bio-tech-like company that Vince founded in 2002 and operates inside the Academic Health Center of the University of Minnesota. The CDD pays entirely for its own research, it pays for its laboratories’ space, and it pays its own salaries (for about 60 researchers), using millions of dollars Vince has earned in royalties for his drug inventions. Vince says that Ziagen alone has generated $600 million in royalties for the University. (The CDD disperses money by giving the inventor or inventors of a drug a third of the proceeds during its years under patent, the University then receives another third, and a third goes back to the CDD.)
That’s a pretty sum. But it could be just the tip of the iceberg, Vince says. CDD researchers are now working on dozens of new drugs and medical inventions, including a possible treatment for Ebola, a block to the progress of Parkinson’s, interventions to stop cancer, a cyanide antidote requested by the Department of Homeland Security, an early detection test for Alzheimer’s that involves merely looking closely at the retina of the eye, an ointment preparation that repairs damaged DNA, and another ointment preparation to prevent the breakdown of collagen—yes, that would be actual, medical anti-wrinkle medicine. Maybe one day you’ll be able to take that in conjunction with another drug Vince’s group is working on, one that can make skin cells generate the same melanin they would through sun tanning, and after a few days of pills look as if you’ve been relaxing on a beach vacation for a month. Then you’ll tip your sunglasses gratefully toward the East Bank of the U of M, where Vince, in 1967, began working in the College of Pharmacy.
Who is this quiet powerhouse?
He’s one of the last of a vanishing species in America: the kid whose parents let him go hog-wild with a chemistry set and a tool belt. Vince grew up in upstate New York, the son of Polish and Italian Catholics who never got past the eighth grade. What his parents lacked in formal education, they made up for in understanding. And when his parents’ little neighborhood grocery store went under because of competition from the newfangled supermarkets, his dad brought home the store’s wooden counter, and set it up for his chemistry-obsessed son. His mother walked with him to downtown Auburn, New York, to look at the chemistry set he hoped for under the Christmas tree. When she bought it, he was so excited he forgot about Christmas entirely, and tore home with it in his arms and promptly set it up on his dad’s old counter.
“What I liked to do was make explosions, because that was easy to do,” he remembers now. “At the time you could go to drug stores and buy all sorts of chemicals they’d never give a child today. I also liked to make rocket fuels. The difference between rocket fuel and an explosion is really just how fast it all happens. You’d get a little sulfur, a little charcoal, a little potassium nitrate, mix them up—once a spark got into the mixture, FOOM! What an explosion. All this smoke went right through the register and into my poor mother’s kitchen.”
Instead of shutting down Vince’s experiments, his parents moved him and his work bench out to the garage. He’d wander the neighborhood with a snow shovel in winter, and a lawn mower in summer, looking for odd jobs to do for cash, so he could send away for more chemicals. The garages of kids in the late 1940s and 1950s were teeming with busy, science-minded kids, Vince remembers. His across-the-street neighbor and buddy Freddy Clark and him spent the better part of a year building a heavy wooden boat with hammers and intuition.
“We had a little 20-horsepower motor, and the thing was so heavy it barely moved,” Vince says, “but it floated!” His experiments didn’t end with explosions and buoyancy. Vince built a Van de Graaff generator in that garage, to generate static electricity, and a Wilson cloud chamber, for which he pillaged a friend’s dad’s civil defense kit for some radioactive materials so that he could detect ionizing radiation.
As a child, he worked in his garage, listening to the radio serials of the day, especially The Adventures of Superman, Bobby Benson & the B-Bar-B Riders, and the Straight Arrow. It may or may not have occurred to him as he labored that all of those heroes spent an awful lot of time saving the lives of people one by one. It did occur to that science-minded boy that, in the shadow of the Manhattan Project, physics was no longer the brave new frontier. In fact, molecules and cells, and how they worked together, was where the great future discoveries were to be made.
In 1961 he married Maureen, a science-minded girl who lived four blocks away. He later entered the PhD program at the State University of New York in Buffalo, where he graduated with a degree in medicinal chemistry in 1966. A year later, Vince and his wife, who now have two grown daughters, moved to Minnesota for Vince’s teaching position at the U of M. Maureen became the long-time manager of the chemistry labs at Derham Hall High School.
“I knew early on that I didn’t want to just do chemistry,” he says. “I’m interested in making chemicals for cancer or viruses—there were no anti-viral drugs at the time. Viruses need to make DNA to reproduce. Cancer cells need to make DNA to grow. I knew I could make my knowledge useful for something: I would like to do something to interfere with the way viruses and cancer make DNA.”
Interfere he did. Vince is also a co-inventor of Aciclovir, the leading drug used to fight herpes, shingles, and chickenpox. He invented a special molecule used as a building block for several drugs. Named after him—the Vince Lactam—whole factories make tons of that molecule today. Without it there would be no Peramivir, a new and leading influenza drug used to treat H1N1 and swine flu. In 2009 swine flu killed 284,000 people, mostly in Asia; the CDC is predicting 2015 could be worse, except for one thing: injectable Peramivir, which was approved just this past December. How many lives will Vince help save now with Peramivir?
Asked, he sort of shrugs. He doesn’t think about it too much. He sets out to create life-saving drugs, and where they go after he creates them is in many hands that are not his. The key to understanding what he does, says Vince, is to have a deep understanding of chemistry and biology combined with a very fearless sort of creativity. Then, you surrender yourself to an ungovernable bureaucracy and get on with it. The story of Ziagen more or less followed that. First, he invented several steps leading to the drug, and then the drug. Then the U patented it. (Drug patenting is a multi-million dollar process, and the U only does it to the most likely drug inventions. But if the drug isn’t patented, no one will ever invest the $2 billion it takes to get the drug to market. If you cured breast cancer and failed to patent it, Vince says, it would have been better if you never did at all, because it wouldn’t get to market. It would be better for humanity, he argues, that you left it undiscovered until someone found it and was able to patent it.)
Upon testing Ziagen, Glaxo, the pharmaceutical giant, realized it would be a blockbuster life-saver and promptly informed the U and Vince that their patents didn’t apply. The U sued. Years of legal proceedings ensued, so brutal Vince still shudders in recalling them. He had to prove his IBM Selectric typewriter was the one that typed the original science. He had to provide records of every phone call he received over many years. Ultimately, in 1999, the University and Vince prevailed. At the time, they imagined they’d get around $100 million out of it. It was a lot more. Vince quickly realized he could do the one thing he always dreamed of, which was, in essence, to buy all the chemicals he needed not only for his own garage, but for all the kids in all the garages up and down the block; that’s when he created the CDD. What diseases lurk 20 years down the road? CDD experiments today may cure them.
Of course, Vince became wealthy along the way. He used his money for a number of projects, including preserving a 350-acre tract on the St. Croix River, most of which is used for farming and the rest is wooded areas. Another is funding the St. Paul children’s television show, The Choo-Choo Bob Show, and he started the St. Paul toy and train shop. He also supports the Minnesota-based Consortium Carissimi, one of the leading performance groups in the United States for Italian baroque 16th- and 17th-century music.
“I like the idea of a group of people trying to create something, trying to do something different and new, trying to make an idea work that somebody else hasn’t thought of, and to see if you can make it work,” he says. “When I was a kid, Freddy Clark, the kid I made the boat with, we always had all kinds of ideas. We’d try to make kites to pull ourselves up in the air. I could never afford the stuff we needed.”
Now he can. Vince makes it possible for a lot of other drug researchers to afford the petri dishes and nitrogen tanks they need to see if their cool ideas turn into something more. As they tinker, Vince likes to wander by and chat. “I’m 74,” he shrugs. “My family can’t understand why I’m still working. It’s fun. You’re always around creative people, you always have someone to talk to about your ideas. I still have things I want to accomplish; some of these projects are very long term. My family laughs at me; they think I’m a nerd or something. But with these long-term projects, I’m very interested in how they come out.”
As are a whole lot of other people, some of whom will, in some number of years, develop diseases they don’t expect, which could be treated with new drugs created by the CDD. That’s the surprising, true story of how a kid with a chemistry set went on to save millions of lives from a lab in Minnesota, quite quietly.