Member Q&A: Robert Choy, PhD

Posted 12 May 2017

"The ASTMH Annual Meeting is one of the only times we can reliably expect that most, if not all, of our partners will gather in the same place." - Robert Choy, PhD

Robert Choy, PhD, was randomly selected for a Q&A from among five members who correctly answered our trivia question in March during TropMed History Month. (The question: Besides Hurricane Georges in 1998, what other time was the Annual Meeting canceled? The answer: 1918, due to an influenza pandemic.) Dr. Choy is Associate Director, Research and Preclinical Development, with PATH’s Drug Development program, based in San Francisco. He received his PhD from the University of Washington in Molecular and Cellular Biology and is the world’s foremost authority on the effects of Prozac on C. elegans. In more than six years at PATH, he has worked with various industry, academic and government collaborators to advance drug development projects for enteric and diarrheal diseases. He recently contributed to a range of projects in the PATH portfolio, including a CFTR chloride channel inhibitor for cholera, novel inhibitors against various targets in Cryptosporidium, tribendimidine for soil-transmitted helminths, and nutritional interventions for environmental enteric dysfunction. In his spare time, Dr. Choy enjoys speaking to students and post-docs at local universities such as UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and Santa Clara University about what it is really like to work on drug development for neglected diseases.

How did you know the answer to the TropMed History Week trivia question?
I found a copy of Dr. Stephanie James’s Presidential Address from 1998, the year that the Annual Meeting planned to be in Puerto Rico but was canceled by Hurricane Georges. In her address, she mentioned the cancelation of the 1918 meeting due to the influenza pandemic.

What are the global health R&D innovations that you are most excited about right now? 
I’m most excited about the FDA’s Priority Review Voucher (PRV) program, an innovative approach to incentivize global health R&D by offering a reward (the PRV) for registering a new treatment for a neglected tropical disease. The vouchers enable Priority Review (typically six months, as compared with the usual 10 or more months) for another drug application and are transferable. Since the program was initiated in 2007, at least six vouchers have been sold, with the most expensive going for $350 million. The potential payoff has attracted the attention of venture capital firms that have historically not been interested in tropical disease treatments because of the lack of commercial value. PATH recently was able to leverage the potential value of a PRV to secure a $25 million investment from Clarus Ventures and the Global Health Investment Fund to support the development of tribendimidine, a new treatment option for soil-transmitted helminths. In collaboration with Swiss Tropical Public Health Institute, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Shandong Xinhua Pharmaceutical Company, we are working to advance tribendimidine for use in global deworming campaigns, and we are optimistic that this innovative funding model will provide a new source of support for other global health R&D innovations as well.

ASTMH is the “big tent” for tropical medicine and global health that encompasses a variety of areas. Where does your work – drug development – fit into this big tent?
One of the slogans we use at PATH to describe drug development is “Power Over Disease,” and I think this really sums up the importance of this approach in reducing the global burden of tropical diseases. Certainly for enteric and diarrheal diseases, one of the main areas of focus for PATH, having effective vaccines and access to clean water and sanitation are critical. But even with great preventative measures, there will still be a need for therapeutics in the foreseeable future. The prospect of being able to eat something as small as a pill, and yet have such a large effect when one is so sick, is really something that defies explanation to many people.

ASTMH and PATH have a valuable partnership that extends through its participation in our Annual Meeting, within the ranks of our leadership and through our shared communications efforts. What value does the Society bring to you as a member of ASTMH? 
For me, the greatest value of ASTMH is in the opportunities provided by the Annual Meeting. PATH’s project teams typically function in a highly distributed and virtual manner—we work with partners all around the globe. However, the ASTMH Annual Meeting is one of the only times we can reliably expect that most, if not all, of our partners will gather in the same place. It really makes a difference to have these regular opportunities for face-to-face contact in order to build and strengthen relationships.

Now for our final question – we ask it of everyone: You get the opportunity to go back in time. You can either have a conversation with any scientist who has ever lived OR observe a moment of scientific history. What would you choose and why?
I’d like to return to 4th Century China to have a chat with the famed scholar and traditional Chinese medicine doctor Ge Hong (葛洪), who is credited with the first recorded mention of fecal microbiota transplantation, or what was euphemistically referred to as “yellow soup.” This was prescribed for diarrhea and was regarded as a medical miracle. I’m fascinated to learn more about how this method was used historically and how it could help us today.