A Discovery Worth Remembering
Major Chemistry Award Honors John Duncia
John Duncia, Ph.D., a senior research fellow in Medicinal Chemistry
Bristol-Myers Squibb’s John Duncia, Ph.D., a senior research fellow in Medicinal Chemistry, will be the 2011 recipient of the prestigious Wallace Carothers Award.
The award recognizes scientific innovators who have made outstanding contributions and advances in industrial applications of chemistry. It is hosted by the American Chemical Society, Delaware Section, and was established in 1976 in memory of one of the founders of modern polymer chemistry.
John Duncia will be presented with the award on May 4 for his pioneering work in the discovery of losartan, the first angiotensin receptor blocker (ARB) in 1986, when he worked at DuPont Pharmaceuticals. Losartan was marketed as Cozaar® by Merck.
Duncia came to Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2001 with the company’s acquisition of DuPont. His work in the decade since has focused on immunology, including a promising rheumatoid arthritis compound now in clinical trials.
When Duncia learned he was to get the award, his reaction was one of characteristic modesty. “It’s kind of humbling,” he says.
Duncia’s nominator, however, is not so modest on his behalf. “If you were starting a drug company, John Duncia is clearly one person you’d want in your group. He is a phenomenal drug hunter,” says Ruth Wexler, Ph.D., executive director, Cardiovascular Medicinal Chemistry at Bristol-Myers Squibb. She has known Duncia for more than 25 years, going back to when she was the group leader for the losartan project.
Considering its technical achievement, significance for patients and business impact, Wexler says she’d rank the discovery of losartan as “one of the milestone innovations in cardiovascular drug discovery.”
It also ranks as a heck of a story, a story in which a small team of scientists, most of them barely out of graduate school and working at a pharmaceutical division DuPont launched just six years prior, beat out all of Big Pharma in discovering the first ARB, an entirely new class of drugs representing a new way to help lower blood pressure. Its discovery is characterized by daring creativity, leaps of faith across multiple assumptions and a willingness to take risks.
If there were only a car chase or two, the story’s details could almost be scenes in a movie:
- Duncia discovers a key piece of the scientific puzzle in an old book on organic chemistry he found in the dusty bargain bin of a Manhattan Barnes & Noble.
- A colleague’s lab blunder – an enormous overdose of a test compound in an experiment – that finally demonstrated the compound’s ability to lower blood pressure.
- The skeptical DuPont marketers who questioned whether losartan, which would go on to generate in excess of $3 billion a year at peak sales, was worth pursuing.
- The happy ending: The drug goes on to help millions of people worldwide in the treatment of hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions.
Duncia still keeps that old bargain bin chemistry book from his DuPont days on a shelf in his Lawrenceville, New Jersey, office, and he’s quick to share credit with his DuPont alumni, a small group of research chemists and pharmacologists that includes current Bristol-Myers Squibb employees Pancras Wong, Ph.D., a senior research fellow in Cardiovascular Biology, and Joseph Santella, a senior research scientist who has been working side by side with Duncia for 29 years.
There’s clearly a lesson in all of this. “If you have an idea, pursue it,” says Duncia. “Don’t dismiss any far fetched ideas, because you never know, they might be useful.” Roll camera.