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Penicillin and Librium-luck and observation rules major research discoveries

When we think about research we feel like everything needs to be well structured but the most important prospect about research is following your intuition. In this era of Elon Musk, we all know how much trial and error matters to achieve impossible things. In the research field, there are many stories that proofs the statement by Johann Wolfgang Goethe which is “Discovery needs luck, invention, intellect – none can do without, the other.” In this report, we will discuss two of the major serendipitous drug discovery i.e Penicillin and Librium

The discovery of penicillin

The discovery story of penicillin is taught to us since our school days. The key factor leading to penicillin discovery was an observation. A simple phenomenon of observation helped Alexander Fleming win the Nobel prize in medicine in the year 1945.

In 1928 when A Fleming was working with a culture of S.aureus a green mold growing in the same culture lysed the bacteria when the two converged. A Fleming observed this phenomenon and later claimed that mold P. notatum produces low penicillin which can be used as a topical antiseptic. Since he was not able to show the form of penicillin suitable to treat infection, Sir Howard Florey, later on, was successful in producing penicillin which can be useful for treating infection. Thus penicillin became a major relief in world war 2 for treating people.


The discovery of Librium

Leo Sternbach who is one of the famous medicinal chemists because of his invention of Librium and Valium and 241 drug patents. He is one of the prime examples of how following your intuition can lead you to discover the greatest things in research. His discovery of the benzodiazepine class of anti-anxiety drugs was recognized by U.S. News & World Report and named him one of the 25 most influential Americans of the 20th century.

Fig: Leo Sternbach (1908 – 2005) source: wikipedia

The discovery of Librium started when there was a wave of competition between different pharmaceutical companies and researchers. It started with the discovery of drug Miltown by Wallace Pharmaceuticals in 1953. It is an anti-anxiety drug that was the most widely used drug for anxiety at that time because it was free from any adverse side effects that was observed in barbiturates.

In order to bypass Wallace’s patents Sternbach’s bosses at Roche told him to produce a similar version of Miltown by modifying it. Sternbach did not like the idea and found it really boring. So he decided to go for his intuition and started working for another project i.e with potential dyes which he thought that their structures could interact favorably with the human nervous system. He kept on working for this project for two years but there was no positive result. So his bosses told him to drop this project and start working for developing antibiotics. Though he began working on antibiotics but still kept on working with dyes side by side.

Sternbach and his colleagues, especially chemist Earl Reeder was conducting an experiment with the potential anti-anxiety drugs. They were testing these drugs on mice by placing the mice at the bottom of a steeply inclined screen. They observed that normal mice were easily able to climb the screen whereas the drugged mice were relaxed and slid back down though they were awake and alert at the bottom. Later on within two years with these observations Sternbach discovered the first benzodiazepine (an anti-anxiety drug). Since he was not supposed to work with dyes so he made a false story in which he told that he found the drug while doing laboratory clean up. The Roche’s chief of pharmacology {Lowell Randall) found the compound interesting and thus the drug Librium was discovered.


In both these examples of penicillin and Librium drug discovery, we saw that science and research are sometimes also about luck and observations. As mentioned in my previous blog we need to be alert and observe our surroundings, that’s what will make us a real science enthusiast. Let’s try to learn from the history of the greatest scientist and know how they were able to do such greatest discoveries

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