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One Company's Quest for the Perfect Drug

By Barry Werth

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-671-72327-8
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

A you-are-there account of the turbulent early days of Vertex, a high-tech, high-risk biotechnology firm.

Werth (a freelance science and business writer) spent nearly four years following the travails of Vertex, where he seemingly had considerable access to its inner workings. His story begins in 1989, shortly after the company was launched with $10 million in venture capital--and with a plan to design superior new drugs, atom by atom if necessary. Vertex's chief, the brilliant and exuberant chemist Joshua Boger, is convinced that the company can design a safer immunosuppressive drug and capture the multimillion-dollar-a-year transplant market. Doing so will require brains, time, and lots of money, but Boger brings together the brains and raises the money that buys the time. Negotiating with pharmaceutical firms in England (Glaxo) and Japan (Chugai), he gives Vertex temporary financial security by striking a deal with Chugai and, in 1991, he takes Vertex public. Meanwhile, back at the lab, it turns out that the scientific side of the firm's endeavors aren't as straightforward as Boger's presentations to would-be investors might suggest: There are complications, rivalries, disappointments, and no end of technical problems, and, at the conclusion of the narrative, Vertex still has no product to sell, although its expectations remain high. Throughout, Werth--adept at explaining both science and business--provides enough history to anchor the present, and peoples his story with memorable characters: Besides the energetic, charismatic Boger and his crew of talented, eccentric, overworked chemists and biologists, notable are Harvard researcher Stuart Schreiber--exasperating as a colleague, devastating as a rival--and aging transplant-wizard Thomas Starzl (The Puzzle People, 1992).

Colorful, packed with facts and delivering a clear message: that the risks of investing in biotechnology aren't just high--they're stratospheric.