What Are Your Favorite Non-U.S. Drug Discovery Stories?
Jun18

What Are Your Favorite Non-U.S. Drug Discovery Stories?

Over at my other gig at the Pharma & Healthcare section of Forbes.com, I’ve been covering a few stories of new drugs and improvements on old drugs. Although I’m focusing on natural products like vancomycin and semi-synthetics like lurbinectedin, I’ve been thinking a bit about the stories behind the discoveries of all drugs. Part of my thinking has been driven by my current reading of Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs by Morton A. Meyers, MD, professor emeritus of radiology and internal medicine at SUNY–Stony Brook. Therein, I’m reading stories like that of Gerhard Domagk, who first showed that prontosil was an effective antibiotic in vivo but not in vitro because it liberates sulfanilamide when metabolized. The story was told in even greater detail in the superb Thomas Hager book, The Demon Under the Microscope. This got me to thinking: I hear quite a bit about drug discovery stories in the U.S. but rarely about modern drugs that have been discovered elsewhere. The brain tumor drug, temozolomide, for example, was developed in the laboratory of Malcolm Stevens at Aston University building upon work of the late Tom Connors (expertly told by Kat Arney at Cancer Research UK last summer). But one rarely hears stories like these, even in pharmacology courses at pharmacy schools where the teaching is more likely to be chemistry-oriented. So, chemistry world hivemind: What are your favorite stories of drug discovery and development that didn’t occur in the United States? Bonus points for natural products or...

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Google Features Percy Julian, Legendary African-American Chemist
Apr11

Google Features Percy Julian, Legendary African-American Chemist

What a fantastic surprise this morning on the 115th anniversary of Percy Julian’s birth:     I’m beside myself with joy to see this pioneering chemist be recognized by the most prominent search engine in the world. I don’t know where to begin about Julian but I’m sure that many of you have seen The Forgotten Genius, the PBS-produced NOVA life story of the chemist. Julian suffered many indignities in his training, from being denied dormitory residence while earning his B.S. at DePauw University to progression to racial issues limiting him to a M.S. at Harvard. He later completed his Ph.D. work at the University of Vienna in 1931. Julian is probably best known for using natural products as a template for making drugs. His first major feat, the synthesis of physostigmine, a cholinesterase inhibitor from the Calabar bean used to treat glaucoma has been recognized by ACS as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at DePauw University. This 11-step synthesis from phenacetin, the active metabolite of acetaminophen, was completed with his Vienna colleague, Josef Pikl, and students in the laboratory. Julian synthesized cortisone, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from the Calabar bean compound, stigmasterol. Later, at Glidden Paint Company, a happy accident led Julian to find that soybean extract (soya oil) also contained the 17-member sterol nucleus, a much more accessible source. At this time, we had absolutely no treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. But cortisone, then made by Merck in a laborious 36-step synthesis, was found in 1949 to transform the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. However, Merck’s starting material was deoxycholic acid from bovine bile. Julian’s synthetic work beginning with sigmasterol. I could go on. So I strongly suggest that readers consult the ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark dedication and, please, watch The Forgotten Genius. You should buy the DVD, as I did for teaching in my pharmacology classes, but you can watch it in segments at the PBS NOVA...

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Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?
Jul31

Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?

  My apologies to regular readers and my colleagues at C&EN for my month-long silence at the blog. I saw cobwebs on my laptop screen when I opened the back end this morning. Part of my hiatus came from complications of an infected molar extraction and my inability to concentrate. I’ve also been trying to take short Internet holidays over the last two months because all of the political nonsense in my state is negatively affecting my mental health. But the tooth canyon is about 50% healed and our state legislature has finished, for now, shifting progressive North Carolina toward its pre-Research Triangle Park level of ignorance, racism, and poverty. During this month, I came across an excellent post on the Scientific American Guest Blog by Atlanta-based science journalist, Kathleen Raven. In “Ada Yonath and the Female Question,” Raven discusses her experience at this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting — dedicated to chemistry — and her reflections on hearing and attempting to interview the 2009 Nobelist in chemistry, Dr. Ada Yonath. Yonath, a structural chemist recognized for her extensive work in showing how the ribosome catalyzes protein synthesis, has generally not made much of the fact that she’s only the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the first since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964. As I did back in 2009 when interviewing Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Raven debates whether focusing on Yonath as a female scientist is a good thing for the cause of women scientists. Should we focus only on the accomplishments? Or should we focus on her accomplishments in the context of the distinct barriers often facing women scientists? I’m equally torn, particularly since my 20-year laboratory career was advanced by a group that consistently ranged from 75% to 100% women. I never specifically recruited women to my laboratory but it seems that they might have self-selected for reasons not known to me. My activism in diversity in science extends back to my pharmacy faculty days at the University of Colorado where I assisted in selecting minority scholarship recipients for a generous program we had from the Skaggs Family Foundation. The goings-on in North Carolina politics is not germane to this scientific discussion. We can speak all we want about our modern society being post-racial and having more women leaders than ever. But voter laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans and legislation that severely compromises women’s reproductive health tells me that we still need to pay attention to the influence of racial and gender attitudes. Heck, even our Governor Pat McCrory showed his true colors yesterday while protestors, primarily women, were holding a...

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Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements
Jun24

Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements

Admit it. You have a Periodic Table of the Elements shower curtain. Don’t you? Dmitri Mendeleev (and Julius Lothar Meyer, 1870) might have never predicted that his 1869 scientific tool would give rise not only to consumer products for the chemistry enthusiast but also a graphic visual adopted for all manner of non-scientific purposes: The Periodic Table of Beer Styles The Periodic Table of Drupal Modules The Periodic Table of Typefaces The Periodic Table of Islam …and, for balance, The Periodic Table of Atheists and Antitheists (yes, please add your own favorites in the comments below) Well, my morning coffee Twitter feed brought me a new version that’s 1) about actual chemistry and 2) useful for educational purposes. A story in this week’s Smithsonian.com Smart News displays the periodic table of the country of element discovery as constructed by Glaswegian chemistry PhD student, science communicator and dancer, Jaime B Gallagher (Twitter @JamieBGall). I’m reminded that the stories behind each element not only tell us history, but also how early chemists differentiated between the elements. While Gallagher tries to give credit to multiple countries for some of the discoveries, debate will undoubtedly ensue. This is is good thing. It’ll get folks talking about chemistry. Lithium, for example, was discovered by Swedish chemist Johan Arfwedson who liberated it from petalite ore, discovered by Brazilian Jose Bonifacio de Andrade de Silva while visiting the Swedish countryside. Swede Jans Jacob Berzelius named it lithos (for stone – think lithotrypsy). But it wasn’t isolated until the independent work of Sir Humphrey Davy in England and William Brande in Sweden. So while Gallagher is probably right to fully credit Sweden for lithium, one could make an argument that the UK flag should partially be at position 3. The story might also get us talking about modern uses of the elements. For example, a large deposit of lithium has just been discovered in Wyoming, a find that’s likely to put the States in a better spot as international demand for lithium grows rapidly. And while chest-thumping U.S. citizens might want to boast international superiority, we’re only tied for third (or fourth…with France!) for the discovery of 17 elements. The UK is tops with 23 followed by Sweden and Germany with 19 each. Have fun looking at this table and consider using it in your science and public education efforts. There’s something here for everyone. And before my graphic designer relatives chime in, yes, Jaime should have enlisted the help of a professional illustrator for color and typeface choices. But, hey, he’s already done the content legwork.  ...

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Daughters and Famous Women Chemists
Jun04

Daughters and Famous Women Chemists

Earlier last month, you may have seen a beautiful set of images by Austin-based wedding and lifestyle photographer Jaime C. Moore. To celebrate the 5th birthday of her daughter Emma, Moore wrote: Set aside the Barbie dolls and Disney princesses for just a moment and let’s show our girls the real women they can be. Moore then had Emma do some five-year-old dressing and posing, but in character of some major female role models throughout history: Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhardt, Coco Chanel, Helen Keller, and Jane Goodall. (Commenters politely focused on Chanel’s business acumen and not her less savory political associations.) Moore’s photography is beautiful (and we may have to go down to Austin for a new series of family photos ourselves) and she captures all the promise and aspirations a five-year-old girl might have to do something other than be a helpless damsel-in-distress in psychotherapy because of a cruel and manipulative stepmother. With our PharmKid approaching 11, we still maintain a large house collection of costumes and various get-ups that began with Disney princesses and has now progressed to characters she and her friends concoct (now writing screenplays to accompany their stories while Dad is drafted for filming purposes). But I wish that we had instead been overrun with role-playing costumes for our daughter to emulate women of strong character and high intellect. So I got to thinking: Why don’t we have costumes for our girls to dress up as famous women scientists, especially female chemists? And with all due respect to Marie Curie and Irene Joilot-Curie, perhaps we might find more contemporary characters for our daughters. For me, as a North Carolinian and cancer pharmacologist, the chemist character I’d most love to see around here is the late Nobel laureate and Burroughs-Wellcome chemist, Gertrude (Trudy) Elion – in a single, striking royal blue gown. But here, even I fall into the trap of thinking of a deceased character. How about Ada Yonath, ribosome structural chemist and 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry? Therefore, I turn to you, Dear Reader. If we were to, say, launch a Kickstarter campaign for the manufacture of famous women costume sets for young girls, who of today’s women chemists would be ones you’d like to see your daughter personify?...

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Lefkowitz IndyWeek Outtakes
Jan10

Lefkowitz IndyWeek Outtakes

I was fortunate to be able to tell the story of Duke University biochemist and cardiologist Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz in the 9 January 2013 issue of the Research Triangle’s award-winning alt-weekly, INDY Week. Even with editor Lisa Sorg graciously offering 3,000+ words for the story on one of the 2012 Nobel laureates in chemistry, some terrific bits of my interviews with Bob and major players in his story didn’t make it into the final version. Over the next few days, I’ll post some of these gems. This page will index the running list of those posts. The Nobel’s Great, But Take a Look at This! – Lefkowitz reveals where Duke men’s basketball sits in his list of priorities...

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