From perseverance to relieving pain and fever

Ibuprofen, is an anti-inflammatory drug that is used for relieving pain, helping with fever and reducing inflammation. It is one of the most widely used medicines around the world.

A recent article on BBC tells the story of Dr. Stewart Adams and his work on development of Ibuprofen.
In the 1950s, Dr. Adams and his colleagues (of Boots UK), worked for 10 years, painstakingly testing various combinations of chemicals:

… Dr Adams recruited chemist Dr John Nicholson and technician Colin Burrows to help him test the potency of more than 600 chemical compounds. The key was to find a drug that would be well tolerated.

From the front room of an old Victorian house in the suburbs of Nottingham, the small team patiently tested and re-tested compounds until they found something worth trying on patients in the clinic.

Dr Adams realised his chances of success were minimal but he and his staff persevered over 10 long years.

Ibuprofen “was discovered by a team led by Stewart Adams and the patent application was filed in 1961. Adams initially tested the drug on a hangover. The drug was launched as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in the United Kingdom in 1969, and in the United States in 1974. Dr. Adams was subsequently awarded an OBE in 1987. Boots was awarded the Queen’s Award for Technical Achievement for the development of the drug in 1987.” (Wikipedia).

Here is the description from Chemistry in your cupboard (from Royal Society of Chemistry):

Ibuprofen was developed and discovered as a drug by the Boots Company. The leaders of the team were Dr Stewart Adams and his colleagues John Nicholson and Colin Burrows but hundreds of people were involved.

Work started in the 1950s to find a drug to treat rheumatoid arthritis (inflamed joints) that had fewer side effects than aspirin. However ibuprofen was not launched until 1969. This timescale is not unusual for development and testing of a drug. The timeline was as follows:

1955 The discovery is made that anti-inflammatory drugs reduce inflammation of the skin caused by ultra-violet light. This gives a simple screening test for new chemical compounds …
1958 After some 600 compounds had been made and screened for activity, a promising compound code named BTS 8402 is given a clinical trial …. It is found to be no better than aspirin.
1961 A patent … is filed for the compound 2-(4-isobutylphenyl) propanoic acid – later called ibuprofen.
1964 Ibuprofen is selected for further development.
1966 Clinical trials of ibuprofen take place at the Northern General Hospital in Edinburgh and show its anti-inflammatory effect in patients.
1969 Ibuprofen is launched in the UK on prescription only.
1983 Because of its safety record, ibuprofen is made available without prescription.

This is a very remarkable story, from many different aspects. Here is a nostalgic and sentimental one: (quoted from BBC)

Now 92, Dr Adams remembers the years of research, the endless testing of compounds and the many disappointments before he and his research team pinpointed ibuprofen as a drug with potential more than 50 years ago.

One aspect that I personally find remarkable is the perseverance. It seems to be amazing perseverance on the part of Dr. Adams and his colleagues.

But what is also amazing is the perseverance of the Boots company for which he worked and which funded and supported this research. How many private companies today (circa 2015) would be prepared to engage in a focused but open-ended research for 10 years? Shortsightedness, deep preference for ‘low-hanging-fruit’ and aversion to risk are hallmarks of present time (although they surely existed always and everywhere, including in the 1950s).

For me, Dr. Adams and his colleagues, and the story of the development of Ibuprofen, are a touching symbol of greatness.

Images: top – from Wikipedia, middle – from International Ibuprofen Foundation via Royal Society of Chemistry, two at bottom – from Boots UK, via BBC.

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