Brent R. Stockwell


On his book The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines

Cover Interview of July 25, 2011

A close-up

In 1957, during a cleanup of his lab at the pharmaceutical company Roche, Leo Sternbach discovered an old flask containing a chemical he had synthesized previously, but discarded for lack of interest. On a lark, he decided to have it tested for its anti-anxiety potential, a therapeutic area he had become interested in.

The chemical, of an unknown identity, turned out to have striking anti-anxiety activity, superior to the existing marketed drugs of that era.  Within three years, Sternbach was able to figure out the identity of the chemical and have it approved for use in patients—a remarkable success, considering that drug development nowadays takes 10 to 15 years.

This chemical was the first of the benzodiazepines, a class of drugs with a specific shape and structure that is powerful for treating anxiety.

Some years later, Ben Evans and his colleagues at Merck discovered that benzodiazepine derivatives were also effective in treating other diseases and in interacting with other types of proteins. He suggested that this class of molecules is “privileged,” in the sense that it is especially effective at interacting with proteins and altering the course of disease.

Other privileged molecular structures have since been discovered, and these molecules might be the key to addressing the undruggable proteins.  Since these privileged compounds are so effective at interacting with numerous classes of proteins, they may be effective starting point to look for new drugs against the supposedly undruggable protein targets.