A couple of weeks back, we mentioned that Brad Pitt was finally going to produce and probably star in The Dallas Buyer's Club, a true-life tale about Ron Woodroof -- the heterosexual, homophobic electrician who contracted HIV in 1980, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and eventually went on to found the famous Dallas Buyer's Club through which AIDS patients bought their life-prolonging meds. The movie's being written by Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams), who reworked an earlier screeplay by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. And the director will most likely be Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland).
Allegedly, it'll be out next year, but if you can't wait that long, we're including after the jump what we believe to be the very first newspaper feature ever written about Woodroof -- a page-one story from the Dallas Times Herald from September 11, 1990, written by our very own editor, Julie Lyons. Julie would like to remind Mr. Pitt that when she wrote this story, she was still using her maiden name Schuster, which is why he probably couldn't find her in order to send that thank-you check. But, yes, she can be contacted at the Dallas Observer, 2501 Oak Lawn Avenue, Suite 700, Dallas, TX, 75219. Oh, and just make it out to cash. Till then, for free, here's the original story. --Robert Wilonsky
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
AIDS drugs is worth the risk, smuggler says By Julie Schuster
The thin man in gray approached customs with contraband — 36 vials of a life-renewing drug packed in dry ice in a black leather briefcase — bound for Dallas.
It should have been easy to slip out of Tokyo, but there were problems. A conspicuous frosty patch had condensed on the surface of the briefcase, and smoke seeped through its sides as dry ice evaporated.
Ron Woodroof, an experienced smuggler, moved fast. He slipped the vials into his pocket and popped open the briefcase for Japanese officials, understandably suspicious of smoking luggage.
"Why are you carrying dry ice around the world?" one asked.
"Would you believe," Woodroof replied, "that it's a fetish of mine?"
Victorious, he boarded his plane. Within two weeks, in April, he had begun shipping oral alpha interferon to hundreds of U.S. men and women dying of AIDS.
As founder and director of the Dallas Buyer's Club, a 2,000-member, non-profit distributor of alternative AIDS drugs and treatments, Woodroof gambled against the penalties for smuggling and bribery to obtain an unapproved drug that may become the first reliable, inexpensive treatment for AIDS.
Now, with millions of doses stashed in a South Texas laboratory, Woodroof reckons he has enough of the drug to "keep the entire United States alive for a year and a half." New orders arrive every day.
Though not a cure, word is out worldwide that alpha interferon, when administered in tiny oral doses, relieves AIDS symptoms without causing the harmful side effects associated with other, far more expensive treatments such as AZT.
"It's such a small dose — it shouldn't work, but it does," said Lenny Kaplan, chairman of the PWA Health Alliance in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a buyers club that distributes a form of alpha interferon similar to that obtained by Woodroof.
"It's amazing to watch the changes in people," he added. "It definitely improves the quality of life of the HIV-infected individual."
Woodroof, a 40-year-old former construction worker who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, takes the interferon daily, as does his staff.
"I feel like a million bucks," he said. "When you take the alpha interferon, it makes you feel like you did 10 years ago — you have energy, you regain your appetite.
"Whether this will continue, I don't know. But I'm damn well impressed."
The results obtained by members of U.S. buyers clubs so far have reflected findings of an African study using the drug and method of treatment for AIDS developed by Dr. Joseph Cummins, an Amarillo veterinary researcher.
It was Cummins who thought of administering alpha interferon orally in small doses, rejecting the usual practice of injecting massive amounts — which often yields a host of painful side effects.
Cummins successfully treated viral diseases of cattle, cats and his mother-in-law before theorizing that oral alpha interferon, an anti-viral protein, may be used to relieve AIDS symptoms.
With financial aid from a Japanese pharmaceutical company, Cummins tested his treatment on AIDS patients in Kenya.
The results were so encouraging, even Cummins was reluctant to accept them. About 40 men and women with AIDS gained weight and lost symptoms such as fever, fatigue and diarrhea.
An American scientific journal published the study in June, but the news had leaked to Woodroof, the press and a network of U.S. buyers clubs.
The problem with Cummins' alpha interferon — and other relatively new AIDS drugs — is that it isn't approved for use in the United States by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
So individuals like Woodroof resort to smuggling and distributing experimental drugs through the well-established "gray market" for AIDS treatments.
About a half-dozen buyers clubs throughout the country, with major centers in New York, San Francisco and Dallas, have run this thriving market since the mid-1980s. Members pool their money to help each other obtain alternative AIDS treatments or purchase cheaper, imported versions of available drugs.
The FDA, recognizing its drug-approval process is intolerably slow when measured against the life expectancies of men and women with AIDS, allows the clubs to operate.
"The buyers clubs don't have an exemption [from regulation]," explained Gerald Vince, an FDA district director in Dallas. "But it's an understood situation that, as long as they adhere to certain criteria and use sources that aren't totally black-market or manufactured in somebody's back yard, we do not take serious exception."
With that in mind, after hearing that Cummins procured his interferon supply from a Japanese company, Hayashibara Biochemical Laboratories of Okayama, Woodroof made a hasty excursion to Japan in March.
Woodroof packed his "famous drug-smuggling briefcase," $25,000 in small bills — "You never know who you'll have to bribe" — and his usual attire, a dull gray suit, invisible to most suspicious eyes.
The first stop, naturally, was Okayama. But Hayashibara's representatives turned Woodroof away, saying they weren't opening new accounts for their alpha interferon, which is extracted from hamsters.
A desperate, dying man, says Woodroof, doesn't give up.
"We have affiliates in Japan," he said. "I was able to get a copy of Hayashibara's 'accounts receivable' list, and I ran down it till I found a doctor who was delinquent on his account. We knew he could order the drug we needed, and we knew that, in his financial situation, money would talk."
Woodroof offered the doctor $1,000 cash for a 15-minute office visit, he says. And that's all it took. The doctor ordered a shipment of 36 vials, Woodroof paid the bill, and within a few hours, the drug was packed in dry ice and U.S.-bound.
Today, says Woodroof, about 400 members of the Dallas Buyer's Club are using oral alpha interferon. It costs each patient $1 a day — pocket money for AIDS sufferers accustomed to exorbitantly expensive, U.S.-manufactured drugs.
The alpha interferon offered by the Dallas Buyer's Club is diluted in a Seattle laboratory, packaged in vials and shipped to members by overnight refrigerated freight.
The drug is taken with an oral syringe, swished about in the mouth for three minutes, then swallowed. It tastes salty.
Woodroof has received testimonials from around the country praising the treatment, though some problems have surfaced. One is dosage levels, which Woodroof originally duplicated from Cummins' Kenya study, calling for two international units of alpha interferon per kilogram of body weight.
"We automatically start by cutting back somewhat," Woodroof said. Cummins, for his part, noted that he still is experimenting with dosages.
Other buyers clubs, using slightly different forms of alpha interferon than Hayashibara's, have obtained varied results.
The PWA Health Group in New York City has had less success, according to Garance Franke-Ruta, a spokeswoman.
"We've heard an incredibly varied array of reports," she said. "We've had people with improved T-cell counts [an indication that the body is rebuilding its immune system], as well as some with no change.
"Recently, we've heard more good reports than bad."
In Fort Lauderdale, Kaplan reports that oral alpha interferon has been highly successful among 900 club members since it was made available in March.
"It might not work on everybody, but it works on 95 [percent] to 98 percent," he said.
Woodroof is monitoring the effects of alpha interferon on club members, trying to determine whether the drug, like many other AIDS treatments, gradually loses its effectiveness after several months of use. So far, so good.
"There's no cure. Everybody dies — that's part of the program," he said. "But I want to stay where I feel good — where I can walk around and people don't immediately pick up that I'm HIV-positive.
"Oral alpha interferon," he said, "is a way to control the quality of life."