Wolfram Ostertag
(Dec 7, 1937-2010)
Born Ludwigsburg, Germany
Year of Discovery: 1974

OstertagWolframOstertagDiscovered That the Drug, AZT Works on Retroviruses, Leading to It Becoming the First HIV Drug

Wolfram Ostertag was born in Germany in 1937, and educated there and in the U.S. His career saw immense changes in science, including the birth of gene therapy, his specialty. As a young researcher at the Max Plank Institute, in Munich, Germany he discovered that a retrovirus called murine leukemia virus, or MLV, could not replicate itself when treated with the drug AZT. At the time there were few known retroviruses, so his discovery meant little to science and lay dormant.

That all changed in the 1980s with the advent of a new disease, AIDS. AIDS was the first retroviral disease and was devastating, killing a large portion of people getting it, and quickly at that. Scientists learned it was caused by a retrovirus, HIV. Then they searched all the drugs they could find that had antiretroviral properties, so naturally they tested AZT. It worked quite well on HIV, but with side effects, and only for a limited amount of time. Still, it was the only drug available, and doctors were desperate, so it was approved as the first AIDS drug in 1987. But it remained a problematic drug, extending life only a little.

AZT had an interesting path to eventually becoming an immense lifesaving drug, with a new step forward at roughly 10 year intervals. Jerome Horwitz discovered it in 1964, but it didn't cure cancer, so it then lay dormant. Wolfram Ostertag investigated it in 1974 and noted it had antiretroviral properties and that it seemed safe, but retroviruses were not thought to exist in humans, so it then lay dormant. When AIDS arose in the 1980s it was examined amongst all available antiretroviral drugs and found to work. But…it was problematic with side effects and often a loss of effectiveness. Then finally, in 1995 it was added to a drug cocktail of two other drugs and found to work fantastically!

This drug cocktail became known as ART for antiretroviral therapy, and deaths plummeted more than 60% the first two years it was available. Due to this drug cocktail, HIV infection is no longer considered a tragic death sentence. The drug cocktail makes HIV virtually disappear in the human body, and as long as patients stay on their meds, most are expected to live into their 70s. Without Ostertag's discovery, there is no telling how long it would have taken to obtain that very first AIDS drug, and the drug cocktail that has saved so many lives.

Wolfram Ostertag went on to become the editor of Human Gene Therapy, the first peer-reviewed journal in the field of human gene therapy. He also headed the Department of Experimental Virology and Immunology at the Heinrich Pette Institute in Hamburg, Germany from 1980 until he retired in 2002.

A colleague said of him: “Work in his laboratory was always stimulated by Wolfram’s eagerness to see and discuss our results, fresh from or even at the bench while still pipetting. No matter the day or hour, his demand for more experiments, often several in parallel, coupled with never-ending philosophical discussions about science, had an unforgettable impact on all of us." 

Written by science writer, Billy Woodward 

Lives Saved:  Over  22,000,000


37,600,000 people have HIV worldwide (16% don’t know it!)

  • 1,200,000 people in the U.S. have HIV (13% don’t know it!)

1,700,000 new global HIV infections occurred in 2019, a decrease of 30% since 2010 (progress!)

  • 34,800 new U.S. HIV infections occurred in 2019

In the 1990s a person with HIV had to take as many as 20 pills a day - today a person takes only 1 pill (that contains multiple drugs)

In the 1980s a person with AIDS had about 18 months to live - today a person with HIV will likely live close to a normal lifespan

How to Make a Lifesaving HIV Drug
Step 1 The drug AZT was discovered by Jerome Horwitz in 1964
            AZT was discovered to be an antiretroviral drug that did not harm human cells by Wolfram Ostertag in 1974
            AZT was found to work on HIV in 1987
Step 2 The drug 3TC (lamivudine), another antiretroviral drug was discovered by Bernard Belleau’s team in the late 1980s and approved for use in 1995
Step 3 The drug SQV (saquinavir), a protease inhibitor was discovered by the Swiss drug company, Roche in 1995
Step 4 Combine the three into a drug cocktail known as HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) or ART (antiretroviral therapy)
Step 5 Watch the death rate plummet by over 60% the first two years the drug cocktail is available
Step 6 No longer consider an HIV infected patient as having a terminal disease, but with a likely normal expected lifespan

Key Contributors
Luc Montagnier - Discovered the HIV Retrovirus
Francoise Barre-Sinoussi - Discovered the HIV Retrovirus
Jermoe Horwitz - Discovered the Lifesaving Drug AZT
Wolfram Ostertag - Discovered the Lifesaving Drug AZT
Bernard Belleau - Discovered the Lifesaving Drug 3TC
Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

The Embryo Project Encyclopedia – a History of AZT (zidovudine)
Ostertag’s Correspondence to Nature – AZT before AIDS