The New Yorker has an article about Merck's discovery and development of suvorexant, their orexin inhibitor for insomnia. It also goes into the (not completely reassuring) history of zolpidem (known under the brand name of Ambien), which is the main (and generic) competitor for any new sleep drug.
The piece is pretty accurate about drug research, I have to say:
John Renger, the Merck neuroscientist, has a homemade, mocked-up advertisement for suvorexant pinned to the wall outside his ground-floor office, on a Merck campus in West Point, Pennsylvania. A woman in a darkened room looks unhappily at an alarm clock. It’s 4 a.m. The ad reads, “Restoring Balance.”
The shelves of Renger’s office are filled with small glass trophies. At Merck, these are handed out when chemicals in drug development hit various points on the path to market: they’re celebrations in the face of likely failure. Renger showed me one. Engraved “MK-4305 PCC 2006,” it commemorated the day, seven years ago, when a promising compound was honored with an MK code; it had been cleared for testing on humans. Two years later, MK-4305 became suvorexant. If suvorexant reaches pharmacies, it will have been renamed again—perhaps with three soothing syllables (Valium, Halcion, Ambien).
“We fail so often, even the milestones count for us,” Renger said, laughing. “Think of the number of people who work in the industry. How many get to develop a drug that goes all the way? Probably fewer than ten per cent.”
I well recall when my last company closed up shop - people in one wing were taking those things and lining them up out on a window shelf in the hallway, trying to see how far they could make them reach. Admittedly, they bulked out the lineup with Employee Recognition Awards and Extra Teamwork awards, but there were plenty of oddly shaped clear resin thingies out there, too.
The article also has a good short history of orexin drug development, and it happens just the way I remember it - first, a potential obesity therapy, then sleep disorders (after it was discovered that a strain of narcoleptic dogs lacked functional orexin receptors).
Mignot recently recalled a videoconference that he had with Merck scientists in 1999, a day or two before he published a paper on narcoleptic dogs. (He has never worked for Merck, but at that point he was contemplating a commercial partnership.) When he shared his results, it created an instant commotion, as if he’d “put a foot into an ants’ nest.” Not long afterward, Mignot and his team reported that narcoleptic humans lacked not orexin receptors, like dogs, but orexin itself. In narcoleptic humans, the cells that produce orexin have been destroyed, probably because of an autoimmune response.
Orexin seemed to be essential for fending off sleep, and this changed how one might think of sleep. We know why we eat, drink, and breathe—to keep the internal state of the body adjusted. But sleep is a scientific puzzle. It may enable next-day activity, but that doesn’t explain why rats deprived of sleep don’t just tire; they die, within a couple of weeks. Orexin seemed to turn notions of sleep and arousal upside down. If orexin turns on a light in the brain, then perhaps one could think of dark as the brain’s natural state. “What is sleep?” might be a less profitable question than “What is awake?”
There's also a lot of good coverage of the drug's passage through the FDA, particularly the hearing where the agency and Merck argued about the dose. (The FDA was inclined towards a lower 10-mg tablet, but Merck feared that this wouldn't be enough to be effective in enough patients, and had no desire to launch a drug that would get the reputation of not doing very much).
few weeks later, the F.D.A. wrote to Merck. The letter encouraged the company to revise its application, making ten milligrams the drug’s starting dose. Merck could also include doses of fifteen and twenty milligrams, for people who tried the starting dose and found it unhelpful. This summer, Rick Derrickson designed a ten-milligram tablet: small, round, and green. Several hundred of these tablets now sit on shelves, in rooms set at various temperatures and humidity levels; the tablets are regularly inspected for signs of disintegration.
The F.D.A.’s decision left Merck facing an unusual challenge. In the Phase II trial, this dose of suvorexant had helped to turn off the orexin system in the brains of insomniacs, and it had extended sleep, but its impact didn’t register with users. It worked, but who would notice? Still, suvorexant had a good story—the brain was being targeted in a genuinely innovative way—and pharmaceutical companies are very skilled at selling stories.
Merck has told investors that it intends to seek approval for the new doses next year. I recently asked John Renger how everyday insomniacs would respond to ten milligrams of suvorexant. He responded, “This is a great question.”
There are, naturally, a few shots at the drug industry throughout the article. But it's not like our industry doesn't deserve a few now and then. Overall, it's a good writeup, I'd say, and gets across the later stages of drug development pretty well. The earlier stages are glossed over a bit, by comparison. If the New Yorker would like for me to tell them about those parts sometime, I'm game.