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Publisher's Summary

The search to find medicines is as old as disease, which is to say as old as the human race. Through serendipity - by chewing, brewing, and snorting - some Neolithic souls discovered opium, alcohol, snakeroot, juniper, frankincense, and other helpful substances. Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,000-year-old hunter frozen in the Italian Alps, was found to have whipworms in his intestines and Bronze Age medicine, a worm-killing birch fungus, knotted to his leggings. Nowadays Big Pharma conglomerates spend billions of dollars on state-of-the art laboratories staffed by PhDs to discover blockbuster drugs. Yet despite our best efforts to engineer cures, luck, trial and error, risk, and ingenuity are still fundamental to medical discovery.

The Drug Hunters is a colorful, fact-filled narrative history of the search for new medicines from our Neolithic forebears to the professionals of today and from quinine and aspirin to Viagra, Prozac, and Lipitor.

©2017 Donald R. Kirsch and Ogi Ogas (P)2017 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"A lively and sweeping look at the history of drug discovery and how difficult, expensive, and pivotal the search has proven to be." ( Publishers Weekly)

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Aargh!

As a pharmacologist myself I found the book contained some interesting back stories on the discovery and development of certain drugs. The mechanisms described were simplistic to a fault in some cases. But the pronunciation of many, perhaps most of the drug and chemical names, was awful. For this and similar books we need readers with a background - or extensive tutoring in the field - so that a lay person will hear the big words properly.

94 of 101 people found this review helpful

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Absolutely fascinating

I loved this book! It tells the stories of how different medications came to exist - a compelling mix of history, science, politics, and sociology. Good narrator. I highly recommend this book.

21 of 23 people found this review helpful

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  • ilkka
  • Turku, Finland
  • 07-12-17

History of modern pharmacology

Very interesting and relevant!

A a physician I use (on my patients) all of the drugs that this book covers. The book also covers pretty much all of the drug families. Should've read this much earlier.

25 of 28 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 12-10-17

Drugs and how to find them

I found this really interesting. Admittedly, I am ‘in the trade’, working in an Intensive Care Unit and doing some teaching about drugs and their different mechanisms of action, but I’m certainly no pharmacologist.

The book looks at a few major drug groups and gives you the story in each case: Antibiotics, vitamin C to prevent scurvy, beta blockers, insulin, the contraceptive pill, etc. A couple of things come over quite strongly. Firstly, the age in which humanity has used a scientific approach to looking for and designing drugs is very new – we’ve only been doing this for 50-odd years really.

For the vast majority of human history we had no idea about the cause of diseases, and if we ever found a substance to cure or palliate a disease, then this was just by trial and error.
However, even though we are now in a scientific era, there are still unscientific phenomena which play a big part in whether a drug is looked for, found, and then produced. Luck, the determination of individuals, and the profit motive of Big Pharma are three examples.

It is so expensive to bring a drug to market (in the ballpark of a billion dollars), that drug companies need to be assured that they will recover this amount in future sales. For this reason they are less likely to invest in antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals, because these are only taken for a short period. They are much more interested in drugs that are taken for long periods – usually for life. E.g. anti-hypertensives, cholesterol lowering drugs, and drugs to treat depression and schizophrenia.

Although this fact is disappointing, the book doesn’t set out to stick the boot in to Big Pharma. It is more a general overview of how drugs are found or designed, how they work, and the human stories behind them. If this is something that might interest you then I would wholeheartedly recommend the book.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating

A very interesting book for anybody interested in medicine or pharmacy.
It turns out we are lucky a modern medicine can successfully treat so many diseases, since discovering medicines is still and has been, despite all the science advances, a lot of luck and serendipity.

16 of 18 people found this review helpful

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Makes me glad I live in the 21st century

This is a great read for others like me who harbor a failed but absurdly optimistic scientist inside him or herself. This book highlights the immense luck involved with discovering and refining seeds of promise to produce true medical breakthroughs.

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

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THE HEART OF LUCK AND CIRCUMSTANCE

As a science, pharmacology survives in the heart of luck and circumstance. Donald Kirsch and Ogi Ogas recount the origin and history of drug discovery in THE DRUG HUNTERS. Kirsch and Ogas explain how drugs evolved from shamanistic ritual and magic to plant extraction and modern synthetic drug creation. They argue that the complexity of myth, elemental plant extraction, and animal metabolism make the search for effective drugs a casino exercise.

Kirsch and Ogas reveal how scientists, entrepreneurs, and corporations make big bets; garnering wins and losses wrapped in luck and circumstance. Like gamblers, drug hunters lie to themselves about continuing research on busted bets with bigger financial and emotional investments. Sometimes they win but usually they lose--no breakthrough is made. The drug does not work as expected.

The reasons for failure range from false expectation of drug hunters to impure abstraction (or creation) of ingredients. They add to the list of potential failures with mistaken methods of administration (topical, pill-form, or injection), chemical bonding miscalculations, and human versus animal metabolism. The paths to error outnumber the highways to success.

So why do scientists, entrepreneurs, and corporations gamble on research? Because a win can make billions of dollars. Kirsrch and Ogas imply corporations are reducing their research departments and changing their mode of drug discovery by purchasing companies that have found new and effective drugs. A troubling implication is that new drug discoveries will not come from corporations. That leaves new drug discovery to driven independent scientists, entrepreneurs, and government agencies (funded by tax revenue).

Kirsch and Ogas offer fascinating stories of how therapeutic drugs were discovered. From aspirin to penicillin to birth control; to psychiatric treatment, and cancer remediation, they explain how difficult, expensive, and serendipitous the search for effective drugs have been.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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A great look at drug development

Donald Kirsch is a drug hunter--a scientist who works for pharmaceutical companies working to develop new drugs. He's worked for several different companies over the course of his career, and has lived through finding new drugs, having the quest to develop a new drug end in failure, or in the development of something entirely different from what they were after. He's lived through employers not thinking a promising new potential drug was promising enough, and the frustrations of getting drugs through the regulatory approval process.

This started out as a book about why drugs are so expensive. It wound up being about the excitement, tedium, adventure, frustration of drug development. And, oh yes, why it makes the end products so expensive.

Initially, for all practical purposes, all drugs came from plants. This was true in the time of Otzi the Iceman, who was carrying a Neolithic remedy for whipworms when he died. It was true down to quite recent times. when new drugs were developed and old ones, such as aspirin, have been extracted into purer and more powerful forms.

Then came, in modern laboratories, the creation of whole new chemical entities, working to produce chemicals that would attack diseases. The development of drugs from animals is the most recent approach and the hardest to make work, but from it we have, for instance, insulin, enabling diabetics to live much longer, fuller, and more normal lives.

At every stage of this history, developing new drugs has required imagination and risk-taking. Pre-modern hunters after cures for what ailed them and the other members of their communities had no alternative but direct experimentation on themselves and those they knew. Even today, with modern methods, protocols, and precautions, eventually a new drug has to be tested in clinical trials to be sure it is safe and effective in humans, regardless of how well it performed in animal or other forms of pre-clinical testing.

And sometimes, as Kirsch describes in a rather personal experience, the drug hunters still wind up having to test their drugs on themselves, to get to the point where they can even make a convincing pitch to their bosses, who have to approve the funding for further development and testing.

The process of drug development is as much art as science, with intuition and imagination, not to mention risk-taking, playing at least as large a role as rational analysis.

It's a fascinating story, and Kirsch tells it well.

Recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Gillian
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • 10-17-17

I Wanted To Love This--

Really, I did. Anything that smacks of history? And then you add scientific sleuthing with sociology? It should've been a slam-dunk!
Alas, it needed editing. I realize that it wasn't even 8 hours, but it actually goes on and on here, way too in-depth there. I found my mind wandering.
There's plenty here that should be interesting: biology, genetics, medicinal mishaps causing death, a history of how the Pill came to be and how fraught it all was at the time. And it is indeed interesting to a certain point. I just wish there was more sleuthing involved.
Worth most of the time you'll spend on it, but I'm sorry I used a whole credit on it.

35 of 43 people found this review helpful

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loved it!

Absolutely loved it. This is the type of books I enjoy - non-fiction, storytelling, history of science and discovery outlined in an easy-to-absorb manner, a series of cases (each curious, and all illustrating the changes in drug development over ~150 years).

18 of 23 people found this review helpful