Drug Manufacturing and Ethical Dilemmas Take Center Stage in "Cocktail"

March 23, 2007
A play about Thai AIDS drug developer Krisana Kraisintu opens in Louisiana this month, the result of a two-year collaboration between protein researcher Vincent Licata and New York-based performance artist Ping Chong.

This month marks the premiere of “Cocktail,” a play about a drug manufacturing professional. Not just any professional, but Krisana Kraisintu, whose efforts to develop generic antiretroviral HIV/AIDS drugs changed the course of HIV in her native Thailand, but brought her in direct conflict with two of the world’s leading drug manufacturers.

Her story is one of courage and tenacity, but underscores the drug industry’s fundamental challenge of balancing the need to protect its intellectual property with the moral imperative to make cures more accessible to people around the world.

Kraisintu challenged the validity of patented “AIDS cocktail” drugs, tracing their original technology to NIH research. After a brief skirmish with Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline, the companies backed down. She is now working to increase access to these life-saving drugs in Africa, scaling up manufacturing of generic antiretrovirals.

This would be an unusual choice of subjects for most playwrights, but it did not faze the dedicated, if somewhat unorthodox, team of Professor Vincent Licata, physical biochemist and professor at Louisiana State University (LSU), and Ping Chong, a noted performance artist based in New York, whose works range from the somewhat to the highly avant garde.

To get to know their subject, Vince Licata and Ping Chong interviewed Krisana Kraisintu for 12 hours after her 2005 lecture at the Asia Society in New York.

But Licata is quick to dispel any images of flamboyant artistry and logical science clashing in a duel of cultures. In fact, the two knew each other from years back, when Dr. Licata performed in one of Chong’s plays while doing his post-doc at the University of Minnesota. “I decided I wanted to take a sabbatical to write, emailed Pong and asked if we could do a science play together, sent him some script ideas, and he really latched on to Krisana’s story, almost two years ago,” Licata explains.

Licata’s post at the University proved serendipitous, since LSU is also home to the Swine Palace Theater, one of the top regional theaters in the country, which mounts professional productions using union (Equity) actors.

It would have been easy to develop a one-dimensional play “canonizing” Kraisintu. Details of her story have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Nature and on National Public Radio. Licata learned that she would be in New York, and arranged to meet her after a lecture she’d given at the Asia Society. “We spent a lot of time with her, learning a huge number of details on the number of antiretrovirals she’s created as well as political issues, but we also got to know her,” he says. “She’s very driven, efficient and pragmatic, but talking with her brought out the emotional tugs and more personal parts of her history, which we tried to put into the play.”

The production, which goes through two decades and takes place on several continents will involve a cast of 18 playing 56 characters, and will involve if not dance, then what Chong calls “synchronized motion,” with workers in the lab pursuing her for approvals, and a meeting with pharmaceutical company executives. Most of the actors come from the University’s theater department, but Chong brought in two actors from his company, and he is directing the production. Funding part of the production is MIT’s Sloan Foundation, which has set aside money expressly for works of theater that advance scientific themes.

“It’s a pretty big production — we’ve been raising money for over 1.5 years and it will be one of the most expensive productions that the theater has ever mounted,” says Chong.

Live-action tableting

Perhaps the most unusual part of the production was the fact that Chong and the cast, none of whom has a science background, received detailed instruction in enzyme kinetics, tableting and compression from Dr. Licata and his graduate students. “We wanted to get Ping up to speed, and he did really well,” Licata says.

It took about four or five days for Licata’s graduate students to develop assays that would be accessible for people with very little experience. They used assays that were from the literature, but had never been used for teaching before, so it was challenging, Licata says.

“We spent several hours with Ping. He had to weigh out chemicals and pipette. Now that the tutorial is set; when we do it with actors, we’ll spend 3-4 hours with them in the lab going through a set series of experiments,” says Licata.

The play’s principal actors will get additional training, since three different people will have to make pills on stage. “We have a manual single-punch pill press up on stage,” Licata says. “We want them to feel comfortable and look professional doing the tableting, since we’ll be setting up a live video feed of their work space, so the audience sees what they’re doing as they compress the pills. They can’t be fumbling,” he said.

This play is one of many that Licata has written, in an artistic hobby that has engaged him since elementary school. “It’s a way to decompress,” he says, noting that Stanford organic chemist Carl Djerassi and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffman have also written plays, including their very successful collaboration, “Oxygen.” Hoffman is now working on an opera, Licata says.

He attributes his love of science to teachers, notably Elizabeth Abbott and Tom O’Brien at the University of Florida, and still maintains a relationship with Abbott. “She was always an extraordinarily strong supporter of getting people into science research,” he says, while O’Brien’s excitement about his research was “infectious.”

Featuring, in the role of biochemist . . .

Licata’s “day job” focuses on physical biochemistry, including thermodynamic studies of protein/DNA interactions, protein folding, and structural work analyzing specific proteins. One of the proteins that his group is focusing on is TAC Polymerase, used in PCR. Most people in biochem or molecular biology use it, he says, but very little research has been done on it, and his is one of the few labs in the country working on it. Their research also uses small angle x-ray scattering, to get a very low-resolution look at the way the molecule changes shape when it undergoes its functional cycle, but in solution. “Other than NMR, SAXS is one of the few ways you can visualize structural information about biomolecules in solution,” Licata says. Papers on this research are due to be published in journals that include the Journal of Biophysics and the Journal of Molecular Biology. “We’ve got to keep up in our field. That’s my primary focus right now,” Licata says.

All of which prompts questions about multi-tasking. “I don’t manage my time,” he says. “I do what needs to be done next.” But that still leaves time for film-making with his 12-year old son Tony and his wife, cell biologist Jane Ryland. She served as camerawoman and producer for both of his son’s films, one of which won an award at a local film festival.

For the adventurous scientist with a flair for drama and writing, there are sources of funding for new plays or, for the thick-skinned, screenplays. The Sloan Foundation offers grants for both stage and screen plays, while the actor Robert De Niro’s production company is funding movies whose screenplays treat scientific themes well and in detail, says Licata.

Right now, Licata says, the public and Hollywood are most interested in non-fictional stories about scientists. “They’re afraid of the next step: Fiction with science in it.” However, the film “Primer,” about a group of engineers who build a time machine together, pushed that envelope, winning a Sundance Festival award in 2004. As Licata himself and his collaboration with Chong show, art and science don’t always have to be separate worlds; they can unite to form something unique.

“Cocktail” will be shown from April 18-29 at the Swine Theater (For details, visit www.swinepalace.org/explore.cfm/20062007season/cocktail/), and the Sloan Foundation’s “First Light” festival of plays will be shown in New York City in April, with some plays directed by Carlos Armesto, codirector of the Ensemble Studio Theater.

Another example of someone integrating scientific and creative sides, Armesto is an MIT graduate in chemical engineering who is now making a career in theater and won the Princess Grace award two years ago. For more information, see www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/first_light-2006.html.

To hear Director Ping Chong and Professor Vince Licata discuss how this project came to life and the nature of their collaboration as co-authors, visit www.theatre.lsu.edu/Audio_Pages/cocktail%201_podcast.html.

About the Author

Agnes Shanley | Editor in Chief