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European Pharmaceutical Contractor

Eyes on the Prize

The book Periodic Tales tells of “the curious lives of the elements.” In the chapter on gold, the tale is told of how, in 1933, Jewish scientists, oppressed by the Nazis, were taking refuge in foreign laboratories. Two Nobel physics laureates, von Laue and Franck, deposited their medals for safekeeping with Nils Bohr in Copenhagen. When the German army marched into Denmark in 1940, Bohr wanted to hide the medals from the invaders. He thought of burying them, but decided the best bet was to dissolve them in aqua regia. He left the solution in full view on a shelf until the end of the war. Writing to the Nobel Academy, and returning the gold in the solution, he explained what had happened to it. The gold was recovered and the Nobel Foundation duly minted new medals for the two physicists.

This charming story got me thinking about the Nobel Prizes, and in particular, the prizes for physiology and medicine. In his will, Alfred Nobel specified that the interest on his invested funds should be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, “have conferred the greatest benefit of mankind, including one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain physiology and medicine.”

Although over the past century these Nobel Prizes have highlighted a number of key discoveries, there are a number which one may call mistaken and also some important omissions. Part of Nobel’s intention was that the prizes would enable young scientists to pursue their research without having to worry about their financial futures. Perhaps inevitably, in view of the distinction which a Nobel Prize bestows upon its recipient, the average age of laureates has, over the years, continued to rise. As we all know, medical research, in common with research in other fields such as physics and chemistry, now demands very considerable budgets and large research groups. Therefore, Nobel Prizes for young achievers are rare and the prize itself, beyond the prestige it confers, would rarely seem to make a significant difference to the funding of recipients.

Over the past 110 years, Nobel Prizes have rarely been awarded in the area of chemotherapy or drug development. The prizes for the discovery of sulphonamides in 1939, penicillin in 1945, streptomycin in 1952 and adrenaline mimics in 1957 have been awarded for the actual development of drugs. However, in 1988, Sir James Black was awarded a joint a Nobel Prize for developing the important principles of drug treatment.

One hundred years ago, the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine was awarded to Charles Richet in recognition of his work on anaphylaxis, while 90 years ago the discovery of insulin was similarly recognised. At the start of the year, the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, claimed that the eradication of polio has been achieved in all but three countries: Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. I note that the in vitro culture of the polio virus was recognised as a Nobel meriting achievement in 1954. However, if you are a young aspiring physician or physiologist, these figures would tend to indicate that if you set your heart upon winning a Nobel Prize (aim for the stars, and you might get to the moon), you would be better off studying basic science than trying to win a prize by drug discovery or development.

Some years ago, I worked for a company whose CEO was Carl Djerassi, widely recognised as the inventor and developer of the contraceptive pill. Many would argue that this was the most sociologically important drug developed in the 20th century, and certainly, to quote Nobel: “one of the most important discoveries within the domain of physiology and medicine.” It was rumoured in the company that Djerassi harboured disappointment at not having been awarded a Nobel Prize himself, but as the above discussion shows, perhaps history was against him.

The last words should come from a recent Nobel laureate, the Brazilian Drauzio Varella, who said: “At the present time, we spend five times as much money on drugs for masculine virility and silicone for women as for the combating of Alzheimer’s disease. In later years, we shall have the aged, with large breasts and stiff penises, but no one will remember what they are used for.”

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