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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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September 24, 2010

Serendipity in Medicine

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Posted by Derek

I came across this book the other day, and bought it on sight: Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. From what I've read of it so far, it's a fine one-stop-reference for all sorts of medical discoveries where fortune favored the prepared mind (as Pasteur put it). There are drug discovery tales, surgical procedures, medical devices, and more.

Even the stories I thought I knew well turn out to have more details. Albert Hoffman's famous discovery of LSD, for example - what I hadn't known was that some of his colleagues didn't believe him when he said he'd taken only 0.25mg of a compound and hallucinated violently for hours. (From what we now know, that was actually a heck of a dose!) So Ernst Rothlin, Sandoz's head of pharmacology, and two others tried it themselves. "Rothlin believed it then", Hoffman noted. Those days will never come again!

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Book Recommendations | Drug Industry History


1. JB on September 24, 2010 11:44 AM writes...

We just had one of those yesterday, obviously don't know how useful it will be yet- we may have found a link between two projects because a guy walking by a conference room saw hits up on the screen for another project and realized they were similar to his compounds. (No, they're not just promiscuous, there's a possible common target between the projects.) Good thing he went to lunch when he did.

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2. p on September 24, 2010 12:17 PM writes...

Beginning a long, proud tradition of whacked out executives in pharma.

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3. anchor on September 24, 2010 12:21 PM writes...

Speaking of Serendipity, in late eighties I had a privilege of working for Hoffman-La Roche and also knowing Dr. Leo Sternbach (the Librium, Valium fame). He was a very genuine and unassuming scientist. My recollection, when I spoke to him about his famous "accidental" discovery was that he was cleaning out his lab and decided to submit some sample for CNS program. The rest, as they say is history. A phenomenal finding at that time and opened up an area of benzodiazepine drug molecules and receptors. This was at a time when the rational drug discovery was still at a embryonic stage! For any drug company serendipity needs to happen once in a while.

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4. retread on September 24, 2010 12:51 PM writes...

There are tons more in medicine. For an example (the Rx of myasthenia gravis) see

Please don't snicker at the pharmacology in the post, it is meant to be an introduction, not a learned tome

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5. Chrispy on September 24, 2010 2:23 PM writes...

I've read the book and it's pretty good. The story about the discovery of warfarin is especially good -- someone tried to kill themselves with rat poison, lived, and a drug was born...

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6. Eric Jablow on September 24, 2010 6:18 PM writes...

There's the discovery that nitrogen mustard could suppress leukemias and lymphomas temporarily. A ship carrying the agent during World War II was bombed, the agent killed people in the area, and autopsies showed that the victims had suffered myeloid and lymphoid suppression.

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7. Interested Layman on September 24, 2010 6:32 PM writes...

looks like a more current Hoffmann-like example related to the discovery of the infamous peptidic lifestyle drug 'Melanotan II'.
All praise to the foolhardy...

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9. drug_hunter on September 25, 2010 3:08 PM writes...

Great book. I've used quite a few of these stories in lectures. Everyone who thinks that drug discovery is always rational, or that the scientific method is a straightforward linear process, should read this book.

And regarding comment #1 from JB - That's a great example of how serendipitous the entire process can be. I hope the observation bears fruit!

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