Tar Heel of the Week: Brian Johns has dedicated his life to finding a treatment and cure for HIV

Tar Heel of the Week, Brian Johns.
Tar Heel of the Week, Brian Johns. Courtesy of GSK

Much of Brian Johns’ career has been all about the molecule. The GlaxoSmithKline chemist has spent his life in the lab creating one molecule after another, each time hoping he’s found the basis for a new and important drug.

One of those molecules did just that a few years ago, leading to the development of a powerful drug that is now widely used alongside antiretrovirals to suppress the symptoms of HIV, which can lead to AIDS.

But in close to two decades focused solely on HIV, Johns’ viewpoint has broadened to include the 36 million people worldwide who suffer from this condition, many of them in developing countries. An estimated 70 percent of people suffering from HIV worldwide don’t adequately treat the virus.

“On a daily basis I think about these patients and what they really need,” Johns says. “I’m always trying to make sure what we do is different from what everyone else is doing so we can provide more value to the patient. There’s no other reason for doing this.”

Johns was recently awarded the “Hero of Chemistry” award from the American Chemical Society for his work in creating the drug Tivicay (dolutegravir), which is now widely used worldwide to treat HIV infection.

Johns was honored along with a colleague from the Japanese company Shionogi & Co., who led an international team that developed the drug. More than 200,000 people have taken the drug since it was approved in 2013. The drug has been lauded for its ease of use, requiring far fewer doses than previous drugs.

Johns is now leading the GSK team that is collaborating with the UNC-Chapel Hill HIV Cure Center. That research is focused on creating a drug that will cure HIV, not just suppress the symptoms.

Researcher and doctor David Margolis, who heads the center, regularly prescribes Tivicay to his patients and says it has been a boon to people who have HIV. He says he hopes the partnership with Johns and other GSK scientists will bring them closer to a cure.

“It was a breakthrough drug,” Margolis says of Tivicay. “Now he’s bringing his industry-based drug development skills to the table to work with academic scientists. We’re trying to get it right.”

Following through

Johns grew up in Michigan in a town of a little more than 2,000 residents called Bridgman, near Lake Michigan. His father ran a company that mined sand for use in the auto industry and his mother was a hairdresser.

His parents didn’t go to college, though he says it was always expected that he would. He first took chemistry in the 10th grade and immediately enjoyed it, particularly organic chemistry.

He attended nearby Andrews University, where he started out focusing on science but later made plans to be a paramedic. He worked as an EMT and says he enjoyed the camaraderie, though he’s glad he changed paths.

“It’s very stressful, and you see crazy things,” he says.

A chance encounter with a recruiter for Wayne State University led him to continue his studies in graduate school. The way Johns tells it, he had made an appointment to visit the college months later and was surprised when the representative followed through.

He had already signed up for full-time paramedic training but ended up signing on to graduate school after visiting. Once he agreed to go, he didn’t want to back out – even when he realized that the area of downtown Detroit where he would attend college was rife with crime.

His small-town upbringing hadn’t prepared him for life at the urban university. At one point, he was shot at as he crossed campus late at night coming home from the lab.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into, but when I commit, I don’t not do it,” says Johns. “I figured I’m either coming home with a degree, or I’m coming home in a box.”

He finished his Ph.D. at Wayne State and did postdoctoral work at the University of Virginia. He says the culture shock of moving to genteel Charlottesville helped him resolve to stay in the South.

Soon he was working for GSK at Research Triangle Park. In a nod to his rural upbringing, he bought a farm in Efland, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Creative work

Johns spent a brief spell focused on the herpes simplex virus when he first came to GSK but was soon asked to join a team working to create drugs to fight HIV. He’s been focused on that virus ever since.

“It just worked out such that I’ve been able to keep that focus,” he says. “You develop a deeper understanding that way.”

His job as a chemist was, in a way, straightforward: try to create a molecule that would stop HIV from causing symptoms in the patient. It’s tedious but highly creative work.

“If you don’t dream up the next drug or the next molecule, everything comes to a screeching halt,” he says. “You have an idea, but you don’t know if that’s the winner until you get the data. And if it’s not, you’re back to the lab.”

Once a molecule is created to have a desired effect in the lab, it then has to go through a series of trials that can take years to ensure that it’s safe and effective in practice. Johns says he was extremely lucky to have been successful with Tivicay.

“Sometimes you know in a few days,” he says. “Sometimes it may take years. Most chemists work their entire careers and never have a drug go to market.”

While Johns for many years worked solely on the chemical side of developing drugs, he’s since widened his role to include developing overall strategies for attacking HIV, allowing him to be more focused on the larger picture of helping those who are infected with the virus.

In the case of Tivicay, he says, their work was driven by a need among patients to have smaller and less frequent doses.

Tivicay is one several drugs, known as “integrase inhibitors,” that stops HIV from causing chronic infection by disrupting the life cycle of HIV cells. While they are effective in suppressing symptoms, they require many doses.

When using Tivicay alongside other antiretrovirals, fewer doses are needed. Margolis says that Tivicay made a huge difference for his patients. Similar drugs that were previously available were “basically unusable.”

“They worked, but you had to take so many pills so many times a day,” he says.

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Brian Johns

Born: Bridgman, Michigan, 1971

Residence: Efland

Career: Director of medicinal chemistry, GlaxoSmithKline

Education: B.S. chemistry, Andrews University; Ph.D. chemistry, Wayne State University; postdoctoral studies in organic chemistry, University of Virginia

Family: Wife and two children

Fun fact: Johns’ wife is also a chemist; they met in graduate school. “Chemists tend to marry one another because they’re the only other people you ever see,” says Johns. “It’s a 24-7 kind of job.”