Pharmacy Career Leads to Africa

Gene Morse, Pharm D, admits his green thumb needs a little bit of work.

“The tomatoes and peppers are the happiest vegetables in the garden while the beans and eggplants never quite get the start they need each spring,” he says.

One of the reasons Morse cannot give his garden his full attention is because he travels to Zimbabwe once or twice a year. Morse is the Director of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Network’s Clinical Pharmacology Core and chairs the ACTG Clinical Pharmacology Advisory Group. Morse is the Principal Investigator for the University of Buffalo (UB) Pharmacology Specialty Laboratory (PSL) and a Co-Investigator of the University of Rochester Clinical Trials Unit. Morse and his staff have a separate National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) contract to provide a global HIV clinical pharmacology quality assurance program that includes pharmacokinetics research methods training to the ACTG’s 60 sites around the world as well as all of the other NIAID HIV research networks and PSLs. They also support a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fogarty International Center AIDS International Training and Research Program with the University of Zimbabwe (UZ). The grants and contracts UB holds under Morse’s direction led to his receiving the Volweiler award. The award is a nationally recognized honor from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.

“We travel to Zimbabwe and their faculty, fellows and staff travel to the United States to ensure the UZ pharmacology lab they have developed runs smoothly. The lab is three years old now and is gearing up to assay samples from ACTG studies,” Morse says. “During my first trip to Zimbabwe, I spoke at a community center to 600 people about the ACTG’s research studies and the importance of participation. When I first started my career, I never would have dreamed I would be talking in Africa about research and contributing to the global effort against HIV/AIDS. That moment in Africa and receiving the Volweiler award reaffirmed my goals and professional path toward contributing to the global HIV epidemic and trying to have an impact on reaching an AIDS-free generation.”

Charles Maponga, PharmD, is the Director of the Pharmacology Specialty Laboratory at the ACTG’s University of Zimbabwe Parirenyatwa site.

“Gene Morse has an extraordinary ability to articulate new ideas,” Maponga says. “He is the most generous American I have ever met.”

Morse was one of the original investigators and laboratory directors when the ACTG was formed in 1987 and has been with the Network ever since. He completed a research fellowship at UB in New York in 1984.

“That’s when the AIDS epidemic was just beginning,” Morse says. “I remember there was no treatment for AIDS and people were dying between 1982-1987 and then the anti-HIV drug AZT was approved. Then in 1996, the first combination antiretroviral therapy was approved and new hope was born among the field of HIV/AIDS researchers and clinicians, but mostly for patients. As a pharmacologist, I could appreciate that these new combination regimens would be difficult to provide to all patients because of complex drug interactions, and that there was a need to develop more effective, safer drugs. Our success is really due to the dedication of the entire UB HIV pharmacology laboratory research staff, residents, fellows and other young faculty who have given their all to contribute to the research that is conducted by the ACTG.”

Morse says the most interesting ACTG study he has worked on during his tenure is A5146. This protocol was the only randomized trial of therapeutic monitoring and individualized dose adjustment of a class of anti-HIV medications called protease inhibitors.

“All ACTG sites participated and the University of Buffalo Pharmacology Specialty Laboratory acted as the central clinical pharmacology site that completed drug assays in real-time and contributed to the individualized dosing approached in patients with protease inhibitor resistance,” Morse says. “This group research model allows us to accomplish things you could never do at a single university.”

Robert Coombs, MD, PhD, is the Director of the ACTG’s Laboratory Center and an investigator at the Network’s University of Washington site in Seattle. He and Morse serve together on the ACTG’s Executive Committee.

"Gene has always been very ambitious about moving the ACTG pharmacology agenda forward both domestically and internationally; as such, he has been responsible for developing the Clinical Pharmacology Quality Assurance program to assure the quality of the pharmacology data that the Pharmacology Specialty Laboratories produce for our protocols,” says Coombs. “In short, Gene never met a drug that he didn't want to ionize, in a quality assured way, of course!!"
Being able to work jointly on studies with researchers and staff from different disciplines within the ACTG’s global research network and knowing he’s improving the lives of people living with HIV are what keep Morse excited about his career, even though his garden suffers.

“Each year is a new challenge for my garden,” Morse jokes. “But it is worth it. The ACTG has achieved tremendous success as a clinical trials and therapeutics network due to the efforts of all of the individuals at each of its sites; community groups; and laboratory, statistical, data management, and operations support groups. Working with these individuals on a daily basis over the many years has helped guide my own decisions and setting of priorities in all of my academic interests; clinical care and research programs for patients; and mentoring activities for students, residents and fellows.”