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Retiring University of Kansas Professor Invented Widely Used Drugs for HIV

LAWRENCE, Kan. — There’s a high chance you know someone whose life has been saved, extended or improved by a drug invented by University of Kansas professor Valentino “Val” Stella.

Stella himself does: A KU colleague and the father of another both used the drug Velcade to treat blood cancer, to name just two.

“About two-thirds through my career, all of a sudden I realized this is not about publishing another paper,” said Stella, 70, an internationally lauded distinguished professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at KU.

“It’s not the papers, it’s not the grants, it’s not the accolades. It’s the impact you have on people’s lives.”

The Lawrence Journal-World reports that Stella’s 43-year career as a professor at KU came to a close with his retirement this semester. Velcade is one of several drugs he invented or co-invented that made it to market as a commercial product. Including those, he said he holds 45 U.S. patents.

Stella has specialized in prodrugs, which involve developing better ways to formulate and deliver drugs to the body.

In addition to Velcade, other drugs Stella invented or co-invented are:

  • Viread, which millions of people worldwide have used to treat HIV. It’s also used to treat chronic hepatitis B.
  • Fosphenytoin (the brand name is Cerebyx), a water-soluble form of phenytoin that, instead of being taken orally, is injected to treat major epileptic seizures in emergency situations.
  • Fospropofol (brand named Lusedra), an injectable form of the anesthetic propofol.
  • Captisol, the solubilizer used to create injectable forms of the anti-schizophrenic drugs Geodon — again, used in emergency situations because it’s absorbed quickly — and Abilify, which can be administered monthly so patients don’t have to take daily pills. Captisol is now in a total of 10 FDA-approved products, Stella said.

Julie Nagel, KU’s associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship, said Stella ranks in the top two or three of patent-holders at KU but that the use of his inventions counts more than those numbers.

“You can spend a career collecting patents, but really what’s important and what sets Val apart is the impact the patents he has gotten have had on how we treat diseases,” Nagel said.

One of the Velcade patients Stella knows is Nagel’s own father.

He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma around the time Velcade came on the market, Nagel said. That was 12 years ago, and he’s still with the family this Christmas.

“His oncologist, who doesn’t know who Val Stella is, said Velcade was the biggest splash in treating this disease since I’ve been a physician,” Nagel said.

Stella said he’s heard from doctors who’ve used fosphenytoin on a patient who had a seizure on the operating table and injectable Geodon on a schizophrenic patient in crisis in the Lawrence Memorial Hospital emergency room.

“It comes close to home,” he said.

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