It is with great sadness that we share the news that John C. Martin, chemist, drug hunter, and philanthropist, passed away on March 30, 2021. He was 70. Martin received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University, a master's degree in marketing from Golden Gate University, and a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago. His tenure in the pharmaceutical industry spanned at least four decades. John was a believer in nucleoside and nucleotide chemistry and supported IS3NA for many years as a sponsor. He was the chair of the XV IRT meeting of IS3NA in 2002 in San Francisco. Our society has lost one of its great industrial leaders and the nucleotide community has lost one of the great champions of the field.
In an interview last year with the Science History Institute, Martin summarized his successful career in his usual self-effacing style, “I’m a scientist trained in organic chemistry who worked the last four decades in medicinal chemistry for a variety of companies. Most prominently, I started 30 years ago when Gilead was a very small company. I’d led the development of that to be an antiviral powerhouse that has really changed medicine, in HIV, viral hepatitis, influenza, and other diseases.”
Martin joined Gilead, a biopharmaceutical company based in Foster City, in 1990 after brief stints at Syntex and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Martin was hired by Gilead to be vice president of research and development just three years after its founding. He was named CEO in 1996. At the time of his unexpected death, Martin was executive chairman of the company.
Martin had the pioneering idea that nucleotides could be used as effective drugs for HIV treatment. It was this belief that led to Gilead's launch of tenofovir (Viread®), which was approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration as an anti-HIV treatment in 2001. Under Martin’s leadership, Gilead also developed efavirenz/emtricitabine/tenofovir (Atripla®), the first single-tablet regimen for treating HIV, which hit the market in 2006. Before approval of Atripla, AIDS patients on antiretroviral treatment often took up to 32 pills a day.
Martin was good at recognizing value in nucleoside drugs and reaching out for them. This began with his collaboration with Professor Antonín Holý for acyclic Holý’s methylene phosphonates while Martin was still at Bristol-Myers Squibb. He brought these compounds to Gilead, resulting in development of adefovir and later the much better tenofovir. Martin acknowledged Holý as the pioneer of the tenofovir chemistry as he knew Holy made the compound himself on the bench. Several years later, Martin founded and financed the Holý Award of International Society of Antiviral Research as well as the Holy Poster Awards given by IS3NA, out of respect for Professor Holý. Similarly, Martin brought antivirals emtricitabine from Triangle Pharmaceuticals and sofosbuvir from Pharmasset. Sofosbuvir (Sovaldi®) was approved in 2013 for treatment of hepatitis C. Under Martin's leadership, Gilead also developed the first anti-influenza pill, oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), which was licensed to Hoffmann-La Roche, and emtricitabine/tenofovir (Truvada®), which was approved by the FDA to treat HIV in 2004 and for HIV infection prevention in 2012. The discovery of remdesivir started at Gilead in 2009 and has demonstrated promising results for the treatment of COVID-19.
"As chief executive officer from 1996 through 2016, he steered the company through a period of remarkable growth," Gilead wrote in a statement announcing Martin's death. During his time with Gilead, Martin also expanded access to HIV medication in developing countries. According to a 2015 company report, Gilead had signed agreements with 11 India-based pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop generic versions of its hepatitis C medicine for 101 developing countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Connecting Biology with Chemistry: John Martin (center) with Professors Antonín Holý (right) and Erik DeClarcq (left). ca. 1996.
In recognition of the need for better treatment of endemic illnesses among underserved populations around the globe, Martin established a foundation under his name. According to the Palo Alto-based non-profit’s website, the foundation has supported epidemiologic investigations to better define public health burdens and inform health policy decisions and efforts to prevent transmission of viral infections and to improve healthcare infrastructure. Martin also started the access program that allows Gilead drugs to go to economically disadvantaged countries in recognition that many more people who are affected with HIV live in Africa than there are paying customers in the United States and Europe.
For his contributions, Martin was awarded the American Chemical Society's Horace S. Isbell Award in 1990, which acknowledges significant research in carbohydrate chemistry and biochemistry; the International Society for Antiviral Research's Gertrude B. Elion Award for Scientific Excellence in 2003; a Lifetime Achievement Award for Public Service from the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School in 2014; and a Biotechnology Heritage Award from BIO in 2017.