The chairman of Bristol-Myers summoned the head of R&D into his office. “Bill, go down and check out the ruckus on the street,” he said. “Something about our new AIDS drug.” When Dr. William Comer exited the front door of the company’s New York City headquarters, he saw a small group of men marching around on the sidewalk, holding signs, blowing trumpets, beating drums, and chanting loudly. The year was 1988, the company chairman was then Richard Gelb, and the group, ACT UP, was new to Comer. He offered his hand to a gaunt, exhausted-looking man who introduced himself as Larry Kramer, widely regarded as the organization’s leader and founder. Kramer said the group was protesting because it believed the company was “sitting on” a compound that could save lives — the preclinical anti-HIV candidate didanosine (2’,3’-dideoxyinosine, or ddI). Comer patiently explained the early status of ddI, and in the end, pledged to make its development “the fastest on record.”
Not only that, but he subsequently convinced the activist to join a groundbreaking drug-development steering committee including NIH directors, giving ddI top priority in the company’s pipeline. Bristol- Myers would ultimately fulfill Comer’s promise by taking the drug from early clinical stage to FDA review in only 18 months.