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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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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Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education
Apr15

Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education

The perennial question of the value of humanities education has been rearing its head down here in North Carolina and elsewhere. More often than not, these arguments focus 1) on the allegation that one can’t get a job in [insert humanities discipline] and 2) that education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is of far greater importance. Remarks by our new Republican governor on a conservative talk radio show suggested that his goal was to reallocate state funds from humanities programs toward science disciplines. His stance led to an outpouring of support for the humanities but with considerable criticism of fields such as gender studies and African-American history. My own students in a newswriting class were split on the governor’s comments. Their opinions were captured in an op-ed writing assignment where I posted the top three peer-ranked pieces over at my Forbes.com blog (by Luke Tompkins, Elizabeth Anthony, and Brian-Anthony Garrison). Late last week, a call for support of the humanities by the STEM disciplines appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Kira Hamman, mathematics professor at Penn State Mont Alto. Her essay focuses around three points, one of which is the following: It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth. Of course, we all need to put food on the table. But having a science degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. Even so-called alternatives to bench science careers are so competitive that jobs are scarce — science writing, for example. But I want to come out in support of humanities education, and not just because I now have a faculty appointment in English at our state’s land-grant university. Therefore, I’d like to assemble a list of why the humanities are important in chemistry education and/or being an employed chemist. Here’s a start from me but feel free to add more in the comments: 1.  Writing and oral communication skills are essential in chemistry and other sciences. 2.  The ability to interact with people from other cultures is increasingly important in a global, scientific economy. 3.  The rich history of chemistry is a jumping-off point for discussion of the most important advances of our discipline. Witness the Chemical Heritage Foundation. 4.  Expertise in psychology, for example, allowed a...

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