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May 12, 2004
Beyond the Teeth, Beyond the Pale
The sense of smell is one thing - cast out from its central place in chemistry, it's still an everyday presence. If you want a sense that's really fallen from the sky of the science, try taste.
I'm not old enough to remember the days when people routinely tasted their compounds, but such days there certainly were. If you go back to the early days of organic chemistry (which means, in almost every case, reading German), you find legends like Emil Fischer reporting the appearance, melting point, and taste of all his new carbohydrate derivatives: "Zart", "Suess-Saeure", "Halb-bitter". It gives you the shivers just reading it.
Fine, that was the 1890s. People didn't understand toxicology then, and Fischer didn't know that the phenylhydrazine derivatives he was surrounded by were relentlessly poisoning him. It took a while for people to catch on. Another chiller is the paper (from around 1930) by Alfred Stock where he describes, with detailed examples from his personal experience, the symptoms of chronic mercury poisoning.
But older colleagues of mine fifteen years ago described having tasted the occasional drug candidate earlier in their careers, in very small amounts, just to see if it was bitter enough to be a problem for oral dosing. My guess is that the practice died out in the 1970s, at the latest, but in any case we're talking about compounds that have already been through some rodent toxicity screens, not hydrazones or mercury compounds. The practice of tasting new and unknown organic compounds must belong to the 1940s or before.
Or so I thought. I recently heard a first-hand report from an off-the-beaten track region of Europe that people were tasting compounds there even in the 1980s. I was aghast - the next thing I expected to hear was that the doctors prescribed bleeding for influenza. Who knows what still goes in the backwaters?
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