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February 1, 2002
I can't talk about rain forest drug discovery without mentioning the (pretty bad) 1992 Sean Connery movie Medicine Man. He plays an alleged biochemist who comes up with a Miracle Drug, more or less by finding it under a leaf.
Plenty of large and small stuff is misportrayed, but I did say it was a movie. (One of these days someone will have to make a list of jobs that movies actually get right.) The part of this one that drug discovery people particularly enjoyed, though, was when some crude extract is fed into an impressive device that immediately displays the structure of the active compound. "I want one of those!" was the universal reaction.
I believe that this was supposed to be the one active component of a complex mixture, the plot hinging on being able to find it and isolate it. Of course, Shaman's business model (see previous post) depended on being able to do this sort of thing, and you see where it got them.
I only wish we could find things out as suddenly and dramatically as they do in films like these. As is true in most areas of research, medicinal chemists spend a fair amount of time looking at printouts (or up at the ceiling tiles,) wondering just what the heck happened in the last experiment. Determining chemical structures is easier than it's ever been (read: in most cases, it's possible to do it), but for natural products it still isn't trivial. My Connery-ometer remains on back-order.
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