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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Mourning Open Notebook Science Pioneer, Dr. Jean-Claude Bradley
May14

Mourning Open Notebook Science Pioneer, Dr. Jean-Claude Bradley

I’ve have more later but I just learned some very sad news from Antony Williams: Drexel University chemist, Jean-Claude Bradley, passed away yesterday. Antony has some personal reflections of his dear friend at his site but here is the official letter from Drexel: Dear Members of the Drexel University Community, It is with deep sadness that I inform you of the passing of Jean-Claude Bradley, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry. Jean-Claude joined Drexel as an assistant professor in 1996 after receiving his PhD in organic chemistry and serving as a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University and College de France in Paris. In 2004, he was appointed E-Learning Coordinator for Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, helping to spearhead the adoption of novel teaching modalities. In that role, he led the University’s initiative to buy an “island” in the virtual world of Second Life, where students and faculty could explore new methods of teaching and learning. Jean-Claude was most well known for his “Open Notebook Science”(ONS), a term he coined to describe his novel approach to making all primary research (including both successful and failed experiments) open to the public in real time. ONS, he believed—and demonstrated—could significantly impact the future of science by reducing financial and computational restraints and by granting public access to the raw data that shapes scientific conclusions. “…In the past, trusting people might have been a necessary evil [of research],” Bradley said. “Today, it is a choice. Optimally, trust should have no place in science.” In June of 2013, Jean-Claude was invited to the White House for an “Open Science Poster Session,” at which he discussed ONS’ role in allowing he and his collaborators to confidently determine the melting points of over 27,000 substances, including many that were never before agreed upon. Currently, his research lab had been working to create anti-malarial compounds to aid in the synthesis of drugs to fight malaria. His lab’s work on this project was made available to the public on a wiki called UsefulChem, which Jean-Claude started in 2005. Jean-Claude’s philosophy of free, accessible science translated to an open approach in the classroom as well. Content from his undergraduate chemistry courses was made freely available to the public, and real data from the laboratory was used in assignments to practice concepts learned in the classroom. In an article in Chemistry World last April, Bradley said: “It is only a matter of time before the internet is saturated with free knowledge for all…People will remember those who were first.” Indeed, we will remember Jean-Claude as a pioneer in the open access movement, an innovative researcher and colleague,...

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New University of Florida Chemistry Building Is A “Go!” – Again
May06

New University of Florida Chemistry Building Is A “Go!” – Again

Well, it’s that time of the academic year to dust off my University of Florida doctoral regalia for this weekend’s commencement activities at my North Carolina institutions. It’s always a delight to be reminded of my graduate school days in UF’s Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics. So, I was pleased to receive an email from UF that, last Thursday, the Florida Legislature really, really appropriated $20 million to complete the long-planned new Chemistry Building. According to Jeff Schweers of The Gainesville Sun: Construction money includes $20 million for a new chemistry building, UF officials said. With the $15 million it received last year and $7 million before that, UF has $42 million toward its needed $60 million to replace the outdated, cramped, chemistry building built in 1947 with one that can meet the growing demand for class and lab space. The University of Florida has had a chemistry program since the university’s inception in 1906. Master’s degrees were first awarded in 1909 and Ph.D.s in 1930. While the current chemistry facilities are not quite that old, their renovation and replacement are a bit overdue. In 2008, C&EN ranked Florida among the top 25 U.S. schools producing chemistry graduates at all three levels (C&EN article, 23 November 2009, pg 38, by David J. Hanson). I’m impressed that the state of Florida has taken advantage of their $1.2 billion budget surplus to reinvest in the state’s higher education system. Both Florida and Florida State are receiving additional funds for recruitment of world-class faculty and will provide faculty raises after five years of no increases. Republican Governor Rick Scott has indicated that he will sign the $77.1 billion budget. Since I left Gainesville, I’ve continually come across Gator Chemists in my professional travels. Here in North Carolina, I’ve worked with no fewer than three Florida Chemistry Ph.D.s. Much of my contact with chemists during my graduate years was with those in the medicinal chemistry department in the College of Pharmacy, “down the hill” at the J. Hillis Miller Health Center complex, before construction of the new Pharmacy building. But I attended a few seminars at the old chemistry building, usually on my way up to the Purple Porpoise (R.I.P) for oysters, wings, and cheap pitchers of beer. So, congratulations to all of my colleagues at UF. It’s great – to be – a Florida (Chemistry)...

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A View on Scientific American Blogs and Censorship of Dr. Danielle Lee
Oct13

A View on Scientific American Blogs and Censorship of Dr. Danielle Lee

For far too long, the presumption has been that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or from a lower socioeconomic status that folks think they can get you, your talent, your expertise, or your energy for free. – Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., video commentary Since Friday night, the science blogosphere and larger media enterprises (Buzzfeed, Business Insider) have been abuzz with discussion over the treatment of biologist and science writer Dr. Danielle Lee by the alleged editor of the Biology-Online blog network and, subsequently, censorship by the editor-in-chief of Scientific American. A recap of the situation is as follows: 1. Danielle receives a query from a person identifying themselves as Ofek, blog editor of Biology-Online.org, which he/she described as “one of the world’s largest biology websites with over 1.6 million visitors per month.” 2. Within 12 hours, Danielle responded that it sounded like a good opportunity but she had questions about the frequency of blogging since it wasn’t exactly clear from Ofek’s original query and another about their payment rate for guest bloggers? (1 and 2 in this correspondence PDF). 3. Ofek responded 10 hours later that he was soliciting a monthly article which Danielle could then repost on her blog after two weeks but that, “Regarding payment, truthfully, we don’t pay guest bloggers.” He/she goes on to say that even Mayo Clinic physician Dr Michael Joyner didn’t receive payment for his one contribution but that one would gain indirect financial benefit from exposure to their 1.6 million monthly visitors. 4. Danielle responded 11 hours later to thank him for his reply, indicated that she would decline his offer, and wished him a good day. (3 and 4 in this correspondence PDF). At this point, the discussion has been cordial with both parties promptly responding to each others’ queries. But then. . . 5. Ofek responded 11 hours later with a two-line email that read, “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist [the name of her blog] or an urban whore?” 6. Danielle responds eight hours later (Fri 10th October, 8:41 am EDT) with a one-line question, “Did YOU JUST CALL ME A WHORE?” (5 and 6 in this correspondence PDF). 7. Danielle writes a blog post on this exchange that she put up on her Scientific American blog together with a four-minute video that politely explained her stance. 8. Sometime around 10:00 pm on Friday night, the blog post disappears intermittently from Danielle’s blog, and she tweets that she postulates there’s some sort of technical network issue, perhaps due to high traffic. Minutes later, it’s clear that no one can access...

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Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013 Goes to Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel
Oct09

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013 Goes to Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel

Staffan Normark, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, has just announced Martin Karplus (Strasbourg/Harvard), Michael Levitt (Stanford), and Arieh Warshel (Univ. of Southern California) as this year’s recipients of the chemistry prize, “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” The collective work was described as, “allowing classical and quantum mechanics to shake hands.” Most relevant to my pharmacology and drug development readers, the laureates developed the computing methods to predict the interaction of pharmaceuticals with their drug targets, allowing drug design in advance of empirical experimentation. Seven Lidin, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry said, “There is not a pharmaceutical company that doesn’t have a theory division.” In 1975 and 1976, Warshel and Levitt began studying how the enzyme lysozyme works. They took the approach of trying to simplify the molecule so as to minimize the amount of computing power required to approximate how the enzyme works. Warshel was the first to be reached on the Nobel livecast despite being the furthest away (and earliest) at 3:02 a.m. in Los Angeles. He describes the advance of his work from X-ray crystal structures, static pictures of where atoms sit in three-dimensions. Warshel used the metaphor for X-ray structures of “seeing a watch and wondering how it works.” Their methodology was a “way which required computers to take a structure of a protein and then to eventually understand how it does what it does.” A tweet from the ACS Pressroom noted that Warshel is a 20-year ACS member and all three have published in ACS journals. Our beloved colleague, Professor Paul Bracher who writes the chemistry blog Chembark, has been liveblogging the proceedings. In a C&EN Nobel predictions roundtable Google Hangout last week, Bracher expressed the feeling that a prize for theoretical work was “a longshot.” Swedish organic chemist Per-Ola Norrby came the closest out of all the sources I could find in predicting Warshel and Karplus with Norman “Lou” Allinger of the University of Georgia. He notes that Allinger’s work preceded that of all three of this year’s winners. But to Bracher’s credit otherwise, his odds list did include Monday’s physiology or medicine prize winners – Rothman, Schekman, and Südhof – for a cell biology prize that could have also been awarded in chemistry.    ...

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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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