Curing Disease with Chemistry

by | Nov 1, 2015 | Alumni Profiles, Fall 2015, Health

When pharmaceutical company Gilead needs a few grams — or a few tons—of a new drug, it turns to Bob Scott ’92.

Scott is a process chemist and finds methods to produce enough copies of new drugs for clinical trials or commercial sale. He led the team of scientists who produced Harvoni, a drug that received Food and Drug Administration approval last year after curing hepatitis C in 94 percent to 99 percent of clinical trials.

But it was a long process.

“It’s not easy to make a chemical that didn’t exist on earth prior to our work,” he said. He worked on producing the drug for six years, but said the process usually takes 10. Each phase of the trials requires a different quantity of the drug and a different method, which he compares to transportation. A traveler would use a different form of transportation to get across town than to get across the country, for example.

Scott has produced pharmaceuticals for 18 years. Of the 20 or so compounds he’s brought to clinical trials, this is the first that has gone commercial, he said.

“With every study, we kept being surprised at how well this worked and were able to get more bold,” he said. “The good news just kept coming.”

Scott said Harvoni is significant not only because of its high success rate among the 200,000 patients involved in trials, but because it works faster than previous hepatitis C treatments and has almost no side effects. For his work producing the drug, Scott and seven colleagues were awarded the American Chemical Society’s Heroes of Chemistry award last summer.

Scott, who grew up in California’s Central Valley, said he always loved chemistry but learned what he could accomplish with it while studying at UC Davis. “There were professors, particularly in the chemistry department, who made a lot of time to discuss with me, ‘What do you want to learn about this?’” Scott said. “Those discussions helped me figure out my path.”