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HIV/AIDS Warrior

Picture of Philip Furman

Philip Furman, MA ’72, is the first USF alum inducted to the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

Philip Furman, ’MA 72, is the first USF alum inducted to the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

By Vickie Chachere

In some of the worst viral outbreaks and health crises of our times, Phillip Furman’s groundbreaking work in drug development has proved instrumental in saving lives. Now retired, Furman found a way to make yet another big breakthrough this year – as the first USF alumnus inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

In a gala ceremony, Furman joined six other history-making inventors with ties to Florida as the newest class of the Hall of Fame, which recognizes individuals for their lasting contributions to the future. Furman, who earned a master’s degree in microbiology at USF in 1972, went on to become the co-inventor of the first anti-HIV drug, AZT, and played a leading role in developing drugs to treat diseases such as herpes and hepatitis C.

And yet, the news that he was being honored caught the St. Augustine resident by surprise.

“When I first received the email from the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame I didn’t open it up. I couldn’t imagine what it was all about. I thought, ‘This must be an advertisement,’ so I ignored it,” he told a gathering of more than 350 during the September induction ceremony at the Hilton Tampa Downtown. “However, before deleting it I decided to open it up and read it. … I was shocked – this was for real.”

Furman’s journey as a scientist who would eventually receive 20 U.S. patents began when an uncle gave him a microscope as a young child. After receiving a master’s at USF, Furman earned a PhD at Tulane University and pursued research into compounds to fight viruses at the advice of John Betz, the late USF professor of microbiology who was Furman’s mentor.

Furman built a distinguished career in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries at leading research companies such as Burroughs Wellcome Research Laboratories, Triangle Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Pharmasset, Inc. He began his work investigating potential treatments for herpes viruses and worked with Gertrude Elion, a Nobel Laureate, on developing the drug acyclovir.

He is best known for his work in bringing AZT to market at the height of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s while leading anti-viral research for Burroughs Wellcome’s labs in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Historians cite the approval of AZT as the beginning of an era when an HIV diagnosis transformed from death sentence to manageable long-term illness.

In the 1990s, Furman continued his work on HIV and expanded to hepatitis B virus-associated liver disease. He played a key role in the discovery of lamivudine (3TC), an antiviral drug used to treat HIV and hepatitis B, and emtricitabine, for HIV. More recently, he worked on drugs for the hepatitis C virus and collaborated on the creation of what is now considered the key treatment, Sofosbuvir.

USF Professor James Garey – the founding chair of USF’s department of cell biology, microbiology and molecular biology and Furman’s hall of fame nominator – says Furman played a central role in developing many of the most important antiviral drugs of modern times. His scientific research resulted in numerous seminal publications that advanced medicine worldwide.

“He is a pioneering humanitarian scientist who is very much deserving of induction to the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame,” Garey says.

Furman joins USF faculty members Paul R. Sanberg, senior vice president for research, innovation and knowledge enterprise; Shyman Mohapatra, a Distinguished Professor at the Morsani College of Medicine; College of Engineering Distinguished Professors Yogi Goswami and Richard Gitlin; and William Dalton, a professor in USF’s cancer biology PhD program, as an inductee. The hall of fame’s 35 members also include historically significant inventors who at one time made Florida their home, such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and John Gorrie.

“As the first USF graduate to be inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame, Dr. Furman’s career stands as a testament to the difference that cutting-edge research can make to millions of lives around the world,” says Sanberg, who serves as chair of the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame advisory board. “His accomplishments have made medical history and they continue to inspire new generations of USF student and faculty scientists and innovators who apply their skills and talents to solving the greatest global problems.”

Other 2018 inductees include Sara Blakely, a graduate of Florida State University and inventor of SPANX®; the late Edwin Link, who invented the flight simulator in the 1920s; Florida native Emery Brown, a member of all four National Academies whose research has advanced anesthesiology; Richard Houghten, for groundbreaking research that advanced the field of drug discovery; Sudipta Seal, whose work has led to nano-medicine breakthroughs; and Herbert Wertheim, an optometrist whose eyeglass lenses have helped prevent cataracts and other eye diseases.

The hall of fame’s Inventors Walk is located just south of Alumni Drive in the USF Research Park adjacent to USF Tampa. During business hours, an exhibit of artifacts from inductees is open for viewing inside the USF Research Park Galleria.