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 semi-synthesis.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. I suggest artemsinin, which was discovered by…. someone? in China. I don’t think they really know. But it’s a history-changing drug (or at least it was, before counterfeiting/natural selection by the malaria parasite started.)

    I’ve linked a post I wrote about some of the early discovery work and the disputes over the credit that have arisen recently.

  2. The link is in my handle, incidentally.

  3. We’ve got more blog posts on cancer drugs developed in the UK:
    Abiraterone (Zytiga) http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2011/09/21/where-did-abiraterone-come-from/
    Carboplatin (although it was tweaked from cisplatin): http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2011/03/21/high-impact-science-carboplatin-and-the-%E2%80%9Ccalvert-formula%E2%80%9D/
    Tamoxifen: http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2012/10/15/high-impact-science-tamoxifen-the-start-of-something-big/
    These are just the CRUK-related ones, I’m sure there are more.

  4. German chemist Friedrich Serturner was the first to isolate morphine from the opium poppy in 1804 (1806?). It may have been the first alkaloid ever isolated from a plant. Twenty years later it was commercialized by Merck, and sales are still going strong nearly 100 years later. Makes you wonder what the world would be like if this hadn’t happened – for the good and bad.

  5. Tecfidera, which started life as an ointment for psoriasis in Germany. (Was actually a mold inhibitor before that.)

    Chlorpromazine, the drug that did much to empty mental health asylums, was discovered in France in the 1950s, and thrived there and in Europe before making its way across the Atlantic.