The Drug Hunters
The Improbable Quest to Discover New Medicines
Donald R. Kirsch, Ogi Ogas
Donald Kirsch and Ogi Ogas have put out an improbable book called The Drug Hunters: The Improbable Quest to Discover New Medicines.

And it is improbable for two reasons.

  • No one believes that the name Ogi Ogas could exist anywhere outside the Disneyland comic circuit (it reminds one of the original ubiquitous animator Ub Iwerks).

  • None of us here thought it possible that a book on the more obscure chemical, biological, and genetic aspects of the important drugs of the last century could ever be put in a language we could comprehend - - - much less find witty if not exhilarating.

Thus, defying all expectations, Drug Hunters has engaged us over the last few days because the two are charming writers, and their twelve chapters are filled with quips and obscure histories the sciences and Big Pharma - - - along with a Fun Facts File.

For instance, the Sumerians were using opium as early as 3400 BC. They called it Hul Gil or "the joy plant."

Since opium is not easily soluble in water, we had to wait until Paracelsus appeared and added alcohol to make laudanum which he called "the stone of immortality." This was Samuel Taylor Coleridge's favorite joy juice - - - made him such that he was able, while floating around on it, to produce "Kubla Khan." In all the body of his writings, this is probably the only one of his poems that critics have labeled vaut le voyage or "worth a toot."

A chemistry professor two hundred years later was then able to convert morphine into paregoric, which my beloved mother used to give to her children for diarrhea not knowing, I suspect, that it was making us happy while it was bottling us up. (My sister called it "a series of tiny corks.")

At one point, Kirsch and Ogas briefly discuss alchemy, telling of a 12th Century compound for making silver, which included "mercury, horse manure, pearl, white alum, sulfur, clay mixed with hair and a couple of eggs and you will obtain good silver, God willing." Comment by the authors: "Today we know that the most crucial step of this recipe - - - God willing - - - requires either nuclear fission or nuclear fusion, technologies unavailable in a culture that had no conception of the atom. Horse manure, on the other hand, remains a common ingredient of misconceptions to this very day."

They also tell us that before the invention of ether, surgeons had to be very quick. "The best strategy for a successful operation was speed. The faster the procedure was completed, the less the excruciating pain, and the less convulsive the patient . . . Nineteenth century surgeons were trained to expect surgery to be a bloody affair, full of writhing and screams, a task that must be completed as hastily as possible."

One of the earliest attempts to extract ether was performed by Edward Robinson Squibb. Ether is evidently explosive, but to distill it one must use both heat and flame. One of Squibb's experiments burned off both of his eyelids, so he had to sleep under a dark batik cloth every night. He would be one who could stare at you, and you'd wait to see who would blink first . . . and he always won.

The authors spend some time on DNA, and trace its importance in the 1970s to the need to produce vast quantities of insulin. Earlier, insulin taken from the pancreas of cows and piggies could create reactions in those of us who had no cow or porcine blood in us. Until Paul Berg came along.

    He removed a piece of DNA from a cell of bacteria and inserted into the DNA of a monkey cell. He accomplished this by attaching the bacteria DNA to a harmless virus that Berg used as a kind of Trojan Horse to penetrate the monkey cell's defenses and deliver the bacteria's genes directly into the monkey's genome. This process is known as "recombinant DNA" since it combines the DNA of two different organisms -- the bacteria and the virus.

Our own writer Dr. Phage worked in a major unnamed university in the genetics department. A half a century ago, he and I spent many a happy evening drinking bad Norwegian beer that came in little squat green bottles, and he tried to explain to me what exactly he was doing in the lab each day, throwing out exactly the same words that these authors use here: "cells," "genomes," "recombinant," "DNA."

Phage explained,

    In the matter of what we now call Gnome Science, my lab work back in the 1960s and 70s did have to do with DNA, but not with Recombinant DNA. That is, we didn't mix and match and splice together bits of DNA from hither and yon, at that stage. I am always a decade or so (or more) behind in everything, so I didn't get into any Recombinant DNA techniques until much later. I caught up with the times, to a limited degree, in the early 1990s, which kept us afloat (meaning kept the grant funds flowing) for about another dozen years.

    But I didn't keep keeping up with the times, meaning our recombinant DNA technology stayed pretty elementary - - - and, in particular, I never joined the contemporary wave of DNA sequencing. So, by the mid-2000s NIH turned off the spigot. I kept the lab running on fumes until autumn of 2007, when I put all our flasks and alembics into storage, and shot the last crumbs of my last NIH grant on attending a meeting in Europe.

Speaking of meetings, Kirsch and Ogas refer to The Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology in 1975 as "one of the first and most important conferences about the spectacular advances in recombinant DNA." One of them reports that his thesis advisor was there in Cold Springs, and returned with great excitement: "Any human gene can now be harnessed to make human proteins in a test tube," he gushed. "And the place to start is obvious. We should clone the insulin gene and use it to make human insulin." And humans, right?

The chapter here on building insulin in the laboratory, and figuring out how to make enough to supply the world's need are some of the best in the book. There are fascinating stories of those who invented the process to manufacture it teaming up with venture capitalists and trying (sometimes successfully) to get the Big Pharma companies to join in further developing it, all the while obtaining FDA approval and sorting out the claims of who did what leads us through pages of mad characters who were convinced others were stealing their ideas, who fought against other experimenters all the away up to and including the awards committee in Sweden.

Tales of finally creating a useful formula for insulin is as fascinating as those who joined to make the first birth control medicine. In all these stories, it is the diverse characters who appear to delight and, at times, baffle the reader. We meet Margaret Sanger, who worked as a nurse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, convinced that women had to control their own bodies - - - a bit of logic which seems impeccable to me, but evidently, now, a hundred years later, seems to baffle those who make our laws.

Late in her career, Sanger managed to find a biologist named Gregory Pincus, who had done some of the early experiments on fertilizing eggs outside of the womb. His study was the "fluffy-tailed, buck-toothed laboratory rabbit." When they heard of his successful work, the press "characterized Pincus as a modern day Frankenstein who was engineering "fatherless rabbits." They interviewed him, and managed to make him say "I am trying to create human life n the laboratory" (although he said the opposite) which got him fired from Clark University.

Sanger found him, and got one of her friends to fund him in creating a pill that would offer "a cheap, convenient, and reliable method of birth control." The story of the creation of the Pill is told here in all its intricate details . . . and it's a zinger. The authors' view of its importance is that "There are few medical inventions in history that transformed the basic fabric of society so quickly and so dramatically." It was something that made it possible for Gloria Steinem to declare,

    When the Pill came along we were able to give birth - - - to ourselves.

--- Lolita Lark
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