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The Drug Hunters: The Improbable Quest to Discover New Medicines

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  728 ratings  ·  109 reviews
The surprising, behind-the-scenes story of how our medicines are discovered, told by a veteran drug hunter.

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
Hardcover, 328 pages
Published January 3rd 2017 by Arcade
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Feb 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: medicine, history
This fun little book covered the creation of new drugs from early healers who engaged in a largely hit or miss process that sometime landed them on a plant that helped cure an ailment to the later healers who extracted specific chemicals from plants that were more potent healers. One of the most interesting plants is the poppy that gave us multiple drugs including morphine and heroin. While I liked Ogas and Kirsch's discussion of the poppy, it simply could never compare to the discussion of the ...more
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Some caveats on the star rating:
1. It's clear that this guy isn't a "real writer" as the writing style is definitely inelegant, just some guy with a cool story to tell. Doesn't matter. It's still entertaining as heck.

2. I love this type of genre and story and this is basically the best job ever and it aligns with so many things I love about science and medicine. Not everybody is gonna swoon as hard as I did, and that's cool. But what's also ohmygodsoamazinglycollilovetrivialikethissomuch is the
Elizabeth Theiss
Jul 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The lovely man I married forty-five years ago is now entirely dependent on the drugs he takes every two hours that allow him to move. Since his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis nearly twenty-seven years ago, few new drugs have come to market and most of them have been reformulations or combinations of old drugs. The only one that significantly helps him was developed in the 1960s. Why haven’t drug companies been aggressively developing innovative treatments for Parkinson’s disease? The Drug Hunters ...more
Bon Tom
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is one big bookmark. One amazing fact/anecdote after another.

It's almost hilarious.

When it comes to finding out new drugs, it's ideal if you're competent and lucky.
But if you have to chose, luck is the way to go. The randomness of some findings is just mind blowing. The resistance of what's supposed to be "scientific community" to groundbreaking findings and drugs makes me wanna stick a needle in someone's eye.

Humanity is like bunch of primitives monkeying around, trying new substanc
Nov 16, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is an artful defense of Big Pharma. To give him credit, the "author" discloses up front his connection to the drug industry. Also, the book is well-written in terms of having little stories about the history of medicine instead of just science factoids. The problem is that the framing of the stories is misleading.

Overall, what the stories illustrate is that it is NOT Big Pharma that produces advances in useful new drugs, it is independent researchers pursuing their passions: Ehrlich, Goodm
Oct 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
I work in support of medical research and I have been searching for a book that explains the highs and lows of the drug discovery - this is the book. Science writing for laypeople is difficult. The authors get it right with historical details and explanations of modern realities. This answers the questions I have struggled to answer: Why do drugs cost so much? Why haven't you found a cure for _______ ?(disease, fill in the blank.) In this time of mistrust of science and its progress, this book i ...more
Brendan Monroe
If you've ever wanted to learn the history of your favorite pharmaceutical drug, this is the book for you.

Donald Kirsch is a "drug hunter," meaning that he's one of the few people who gets funding from a big pharmaceutical company to try and test out cures for what ails you. The likelihood of that drug actually being effective is very low, and the likelihood of its being effective and then managing to get approval is highly improbable. To hear Kirsch tell it, "drug hunting" sounds like a pretty
Annette Jordan
Dec 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, medical, 2016
A clear and concise history of the search for new medicines, from early man chewing on bark to today's big pharma giants, this book was a very easy read, and a perfect introduction to a fascinating topic. The material is divided into a series of topics, in broadly chronological order, and covers everything from early botanical treatments to the most modern cutting edge techniques of drug development involving molecular biology, genetic sequencing and use of recombinant DNA. There is very little ...more
Peter Tillman
Oct 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reread-list, sci-tech
A brief history of how new drugs are found, and how they are tested and brought to market, by a guy who's spent his career as a drug hunter, working for Big Pharma. He writes well, knows the field and has done his homework. Almost every chapter has unexpected insights: after Fleming discovered penicillin, it was shelved for years until WW2 loomed, for lack of any way to mass-produce the drug. A moldy cantaloupe found in Peoria turned out to be a better strain of the Penicillium mold, and wartime ...more
Jan 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book was absolutely fascinating and for those who have always wondered why there isn't a tablet for this or that clearly explains the answer.
The Drug Hunters gives the pre-history, history and future diagnosis of where our medications came from and were developed. This is the story of how and why the tablets we take from Aspirin to the birth control pill came into being and the stories behind them.
I had several surprises such as there has only been medication for schizophrenia and depressio
Lis Carey
Oct 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, non-fiction
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 th ...more
Apr 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this one. Author Donald R. Kirsch writes with an easy, engaging style that doesn't struggle to hold the reader's attention.
"The Drug Hunters" was full of super-interesting information. It covers the discovery of many of the most popular modern drugs, that have collectively changed humanity. Among them; morphine, heroin, ether, quinine, and the female birth control pill.
The book opens with a brief history of "drug hunting", and also talks about many of histories worst diseases;
Nov 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Drug discovery has taken on varied forms overtime and The Drug Hunters walks through some of the earlier methods before modern combinatorics came on line. The book also discusses previous medical theories and the ways in which they were radically off. Along the way I learned that the ER Squibb of Bristol-Myers Squibb blew his eyelids off and slept with cloth over his face to block out light and that guinea pigs can experience scurvy.

I wish the book discussed contemporary drug discovery and resea
Priya Prakash
May 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and engrossing this book was. Donald Kirsch and Ogi Ogas take us through the exciting journey of drug discovery from the age of prehistoric forebears to the modern-day scientists who are cradled in the arms of big pharma. Each chapter describes the fascinating and sometimes thrilling discoveries or inventions of important drugs (and drug classes) – from plants to dirt to chemistry to genetics – that have changed the course of humanity over the years ...more
Michael Mulligan
Aug 15, 2018 rated it liked it
In 1941, British citizen Albert Alexander pricked his face on a rose thorn. A malignant bacteria on the rose made its way into the cut, and the infection spread rapidly. Alexander’s face, scalp, and eyes became severely swollen within a few days. To stop the spread of the bacteria to his brain, doctors removed Alexander’s eye, but this did not stop the infection. With Alexander facing certain death, Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, a pair of immigrant scientists, decided to test a new fungal ...more
Bill Weaver
Jan 09, 2019 rated it liked it
This was a fun little book: just enough history and stories to convey the point that every new medication is the equal result of genius and blind luck.

Drug hunters are at best professional card players: they can maximize the odds to their favor, but their success still depends on the shuffle of the deck.
Only 5% of scientist pitches to big pharma get funded for research. Of these, only 2% actually get FDA approval.
Supposedly, making a usable drug costs, on average, $1.5 billion, and takes 14 y
May 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
My strongest impression from this excellent book is that finding an effective drug remains a very hit or miss affair. I expected that to be true in the past, but didn't expect it to still be true. Our greatest advance is that we can now automate some of the laborious searching through large numbers of chemicals or gene sequences. A second strong impression is that when a new source of potential pharmaceuticals is discovered, such as when soil fungi were explored for antibiotics starting in the 1 ...more
Armel Dagorn
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Drug Hunters is a fascinating book, taking the reader through different breakthroughs in the history of pharmacology while managing to be a very easy read.

Kirsch and Ogas tell the often random, always lucky events that led innovative drug hunters to find new, at-the-time miraculous remedies. The focus here is on "famous" diseases and drugs - you'll find tales about scurvy, syphilis, hypertension, as well as about the contraceptive pill, opiates and ether and the birth of anaesthesia.

What ma
Meg Berg
Jan 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Once this book hit its stride, it offered interesting tidbits about the context within which significant pharmacological discoveries have been made throughout history. I nearly abandoned it at the outset because the author was so intent on convincing the reader that discovering new drugs is hard and expensive. As I had rather assumed this to be the case before starting the book, the introduction felt a bit condescending and repetitive. All in all, this book took stories that most adults have hea ...more
Kathy Dalton
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a surprisingly easy read that details the developmental history a wide variety of medications. There are some really crazy stories about how various medications were either invented or discovered! Scientists take big risks to do the necessary research on a chemical or substance before it gets to your local pharamcy, and some of these risks are deadly. The pharmaceutical industry started as a few dye manufacturers along the Rhine River in Germany and has developed into the behemouth of wh ...more
Adam Orford
May 28, 2018 rated it liked it
This is a very readable collection of stories about the discovery of important drugs - aspirin, sulfa, Thorazine, the pill, insulin, etc. It is organized via a creative application of Borges’ Library of Babel - drugs stories are collected together by “book,” I.e., loosely, the genetic or physical collection of potential drug sources through which people have searched for medicines - the “book” of plants, the “book” of soil, the “book” of inorganic chemistry, etc. This is kind of fascinating.

Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book on audio. It was interesting, informative and written on a level where a non-science person like myself can understand it. I knew that big pharma's main goal is profits, but I never thought that they pulled back on research for some of the drugs that won't make them money - things like antibiotics, where someone takes one course and that's it versus insulin or high blood pressure meds that need to be taken daily. The other big surprise was how much luck factors into whet ...more
Feb 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology
From the fortuitous discovery of penicillin by Alexander Flemming all the way to the unlikely alliances that produced the birth control pill, Kirsch details the process of pharmaceutical drug creation from the standpoint of a drug hunter. A drug hunter is someone who goes out and looks for chemical compounds in the vast libraries of biology in a systematic way hoping to strike pharmaceutical gold. In doing so, he presents a view of drug hunting more like a game (shout out to Russel Marker) based ...more
Jul 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was even better than I thought it would be. It gives an engaging history of pharmaceuticals pointing out the lucky chances and serendipity that were involved in the discovery of many important drugs and treatments we use. I enjoyed it very much. When I was younger, I used to think that the 1800s was a really long time ago. But as I have studied history more, I realize better just how recent many of our understandings about germs, disease, and medicine are.

The author points out several
Karel Baloun
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A scientific historical adventure, full of fascinating discoveries and unforgettable characters, which all together gave us so much of the medicine that we treasure today.

In one afternoon, with each chapter a delicious bite of a valuable medical discovery, a curious reader can easily complete the book, and see why the authors conclude that drug discovery is an art more than a science.

The future is probably computational and combinatorial and DNA-based drug discovery, and I wish the book had more
Sep 16, 2017 rated it liked it
pretty interesting histories of various ways in which drugs have been discovered -- from plants, from synthetic chemistry [with an intellectual assist from the makers of dyes], by trial and error vs. active search for what would address the problem, by finding something that was intended to work for one condition but addresses another.........

recurring subtext that is more boring than the history, albeit certainly relevant to understanding current research, is the economics of drug r & d, which
Feb 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the episodic March through drug discovery that this book has to offer. The stories of insulin and siphalis were not new to me, but still offered new perspectives to entertain and educate. The author's personal anecdotes on working with different companies under different corperate climates were well placed and added a nice perspective. My only complaints are that the story of Taxol was not mentioned nor featured, and the the reader has very inconsistent pronunciation of bacterial and c ...more
Feb 19, 2018 rated it liked it
Challenge Category: A Microhistory

This book is fascinating! Detailing the history of how medicines have been developed throughout history. Going back to Neo-lithic man and the use of plants and herbs-- the history of drugs is more than I had really thought about. Bringing the narrative up to the present day- I can't say that I had ever really thought about how drug companies develop new pharmaceuticals in today's world either. Although I can't say that I am completely comforted by how much we do
Dec 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Audiobook. Excellent read about the world of pharmaceutical drug hunting. He tells the story behind some of the first modern medicines and follows the thread to the current day. A surprising number of drugs are still accidents of pure chance to this day, and more than a few nobody still understands how or why they work. Helps put some context around why drug prices are so high, and why no major pharma company spends money to develop new antibiotics anymore, even though many are fast losing their ...more
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