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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Nobel Time! | Main | Alzheimer's Vaccine Refuses to Die »

October 10, 2002

Another Stuffed Shirt

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Posted by Derek

Talking about the Nobels brings to mind a story from Sydney Brenner, one of those honored with the Medicine prize this year. He related this story in a column he did for Current Biology a few years ago (8 (23), 19 Nov 1998, R825 if you want to look it up.) He was visiting a company in Japan ("W---- Pharmaceuticals") that made some sort of herbal brew made from fermented garlic, which tasted just as awful as you 'd guess. It had to be given in capsules, but the dose was large enough that they couldn't sell them filled without losing many of the packages to breakage and leaks. So (turning this into a marketing tool,) they sold the stuff as a kit, with empty capsules and a dropper to make your own dose.

Brenner mentioned that he'd like to try the stuff, so they trotted off and brought him one. While he was mixing up his garlic dose, he seems to have had an inspiration: he swallowed it, then cried out, gave a strangled gurgle, and pitched off his chair onto the floor.

Well, that got everyone's attention, as you can imagine. He relates that he kept one eye partially open to gauge the effect of his performance, and what he saw was a stunned roomful of Japanese businessmen with the blood draining from their faces. He claims to have noted a couple of expressions that he interpreted as preliminary thoughts about what to do with the body.

He let them off the hook pretty quickly, which was probably wise, springing to his feet, waving and laughing to the hysterical relief of his hosts. As he says

"I am quite famous in Japan for this, and every now and then, somebody comes up to me, shaking their head, nudging me and saying "W--- Pharmeceuticals!"

My kind of guy! And the Nobel he shared is another well-deserved one. The study of the roundworm C. elegans has been an extremely useful technique, since it's multicellular, but not too much so. You can follow the fate of every single one of its cells as it develops, and some rather odd stuff happens. For example, as it turns out, not all of them make it. Particular excess cells die out at particular times, and this programmed cell death (apoptosis) has now been the subject of more research articles than you can shake an Eppendorf vial at. (That's what the mention of "cancer treatments" that the prize got in the popular press meant - tumor cells generally should have fallen on their metabolic swords and died at some point, but mysteriously haven't.)

This work has set off discovery in all sorts of other areas, too. There are a surprising number of cellular pathways that are conserved all the way to humans, and it's a heck of a lot easier to study them in the worms. Looking for these is almost a guarantee of working on something fundamental, because anything that's similar across that sort of phylogenetic gap is bound to be pretty important. Getting a crib sheet to the key pathways along with a fine model organism, all in the same research program - that's how to do it, all right.

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