Discovered growth hormone that grew into versatile drug
Wilfried Bauer and Trevor Petcher of Basel, Switzerland, will be honored on August 20 by the world's largest scientific society for their role in discovering octreotide, a versatile drug first used to help patients who suffer from excess growth hormone. As a team, they will be designated one of 12 Heroes of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society at its 220th national meeting in Washington, D.C.
In 1973, researchers at the Salk Institute isolated a hormone, named somatostatin, that suppressed the release of growth hormone. Excessive production of growth hormone -- a condition called acromegaly -- can cause gigantism and shorten life span.
But native somatostatin survives only a short time in living tissue. "That made it very hard to characterize," explained Bauer, a chemist with Novartis Pharma AG. "So we decided to synthesize it in the laboratory in sufficient amounts and set up our own studies."
That project, begun in 1974, culminated five years later with the synthesis of octreotide, a growth-hormone inhibitor. Novartis markets the drug as Sandostatin.
"When you try to improve on nature, the qualities you aim for include stable and longer acting derivatives, selective inhibitory action, smaller size and easy synthesis," said Bauer.
A turning point in the project came in 1979 with the arrival of Petcher, a Novartis chemist who specializes in computer modeling of drug design. "Ideas had been floating around for a few months to try radically smaller compounds," Petcher remembered. He suggested concentrating on this new direction, he said, and "within a few short months we had a compound good enough to submit for clinical investigation."
Those human studies revealed that octreotide can do more than normalize levels of growth hormone. For example, it can treat gastroenteropancreatic, or GEP, tumors.