Biopharmaceutical consultant Kirsch debuts with a popular account of the search for new drugs, from prehistory through the rise of big pharma.
This lucid, anecdote-rich book, co-authored by science writer Ogas (co-author: Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, 2015, etc.), covers familiar ground for specialists but offers a bright overview for the rest of us of humankind’s hunt for medicines, first in the molecules of plants, then in synthetic compounds, and now in the human genome. Throughout history, drug discoveries have been “entirely fortuitous,” writes the author, who has been a chief science officer with several major drug firms. Successful drug hunting takes “talent, moxie, persistence, luck—and even then, it might not be enough.” In fact, most researchers “never” find new compounds that safely and effectively improve health. That said, Kirsch tells the fascinating stories of historic drug discoveries over the centuries, from opium (used in 3400 B.C.E.) to chloroform, ether, quinine, aspirin, penicillin, insulin, the birth control pill, and psychoactive medicines. Once physician-botanists (until the Renaissance) and now physician–molecular biologists, drug researchers have always faced “dismayingly difficult” trial-and-error screening. Recounting the work of researchers from Valerius Cordus (b. 1515), who wrote a landmark apothecary manual, to Paul Ehrlich, who developed the cure for syphilis, to Gregory Pincus, a scandal-tainted scientist who worked with two elderly feminists to develop an effective oral contraception drug, Kirsch describes the emergence of the science of pharmacology by the mid-20th century. Today, 50 to 70 percent of all clinical drug trials fail, and each FDA–approved drug requires an average investment of $1.5 billion and 14 years of research. Kirsch notes that big pharma has little incentive to develop medicines that produce cures—as opposed to drugs for chronic diseases like diabetes and high cholesterol, which users purchase again and again—and faults drug makers’ hostility to the “risk-laden reality of modern drug-hunting.”
Highly informative and accessible for general readers.