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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: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 16, 2004

The Old Days, Some Older Than Others

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Posted by Derek

Last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal had a very interesting article on the front page: "In Two Generations, Drug Research Sees a Big Shift." It profiles Leo Sternbach, discoverer of the diazepams (Valium being the most famous) and other drugs, and his son, Dan Sternbach of GlaxoSmithKline. The elder Sternbach has been at this stuff since 1940, so he's seen the lot. (The article isn't online, but an earlier account of his research is here.)

He began work in the era of open buckets, wooden paddles, and trying drugs out on yourself to see if they did anything. After one of those, he recounts, "For two days I was not at all well." In my first job, I overlapped with just a few people from the last of the era, and they had similar stories. The thought of eating one of my own research compounds has always given me the shakes. No thanks - not before a whole long list of mice, rats, and larger mammals have had their turn. Believe me, no one does that today, and anyone who did would be asking for huge amounts of trouble. It's interesting to note, though, that the practice doesn't seem to have done Sternbach any long-term harm, since he's 95 and all. I should note, for balance's sake, that other chemists from even earlier days are known to have poisoned themselves but good through such techniques.

I found the article particularly interesting because Dan Sternbach was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school at Duke in the mid-1980s. He left for greener Glaxo pastures while I was there, but I did take his class in frontier molecular orbital theory. (That's yet another of the things I learned in grad school whose applications since then I can count on my fingers. It's hard to explain briefly for my non-chemist readers, but here's a PDF to give you the flavor of it.) I would have found it pretty interesting to know, back in 1984, that Sternbach and I would end up at competing drug companies. At least once, to my knowledge, we've been competing in the same area of research at the same time. His years at Duke meant that he started in industry just three years before I did, actually, although with his running start he certainly came in at a higher level.

One Sternbach story I have is when a group of us were grading exam papers for a section of sophomore organic chemistry he was teaching. We attacked it as a team, each person taking on a set of questions and grading the whole class's answers to them, passing the papers on to the next person for them to check their section. One of us hit a paper where the student had made it about halfway through an answer, and had scribbled in a frustrated "I can't remember the goddamn equation!" We all enjoyed that one, but as his paper made it around the table, it turned out that he had a couple more similar fits: "Don't know the goddamn reaction!" and so on. When it came time to total up the scores, Sternbach looked at the guy's exam and mused "I should just write on there: '148 out of 200, Goddamnit!' "

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