Ibuprofen – the inventor

I’ve been thinking about Stewart Adams, the 80-something inventor of Ibuprofen, who worked at Boots Pharmaceuticals all his career and didn’t get an extra penny for his breakthrough. He was interviewed recently on the Radio 4 programme Desert Island Disks. Asked if he had any regrets on this, he said something along the lines of ‘No regrets at all – some of my colleagues didn’t invent anything that got marketed’.

The rabid pursuit of the Next Big Thing could be seen as a get rich quick scheme, rather than a noble pursuit of ways to change the world…

Adams himself did have a regret… that he hadn’t cracked a cure for arthritis!

Does Generation Y have a different perspective on entrepreneurship than the Baby Boomers?

I found this from an old Guardian piece of 2003:

Stewart Adams, the inventor of ibuprofen, lives modestly in a compact modern house on the outskirts of Nottingham. On the sideboard in his living room there is a silver Nurofen pack, cast in metal, with the names of the first Nurofen advertisers on the back. He won an OBE for services to science in 1987, and his name is on the ibuprofen patent. But Adams has derived no great material reward from his invention – no house in the country, not even a lifetime supply of painkillers. When he gets a headache, he goes to the corner shop just like the rest of us.

A sprightly, talkative 79, Adams came upon ibuprofen when he was working as a research scientist for Boots in the late 1950s, looking for a drug to reduce inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Looking back on his career, he says he was “very disappointed”. He had found a headache remedy that was more potent than aspirin, with fewer side-effects – but he hadn’t found a cure for rheumatoid arthritis.

His operation was very small – “a man and a boy”. Typically, his research budget was between £4,000 and £5,000 a year. Adams discovered that aspirin reduced the swelling caused by ultraviolet light on the skin. Working with an organic chemist called John Nicholson, he began looking for aspirin-like compounds that might have fewer side-effects on arthritic patients. “It was a bit hit and miss,” he told me. (This was long before John Vane had discovered how aspirin worked.)

“We weren’t as clearcut in our thinking as we might have been,” said Adams. He and Nicholson looked at hundreds of chemical compounds. They put several drugs through clinical trials, testing them on arthritic patients. One drug produced a nasty rash in a large percentage of the patients; another produced a rash in a smaller, but still significant, percentage. A third, ibufenac, an acetic acid, caused jaundice. “We had to sit back and have another rethink,” said Adams.

During this long process of trial and error, Adams synthesised a version of ibufenac that was not an acetic acid but a proprionic acid – ie, related to propane rather than vinegar. He assumed it would be toxic but, surprisingly, it wasn’t: it had a short half-life in the tissues. It was like aspirin, only you could take more of it. Adams and his colleagues began taking the compound, ibuprofen, when they got headaches. “We knew it was analgesic, because we were taking it well before it got on the market,” he says. He remembers making a speech at a conference after a few drinks the night before, having dealt with his hangover by taking 600mg of this new drug he had invented.

When Boots patented ibuprofen in 1962, Adams could have had little idea what he had invented – an analgesic that would compete with aspirin; a drug that, once its control had passed into the hands of the marketing men, would change the way we consume painkillers for ever. For the rest of his career, Adams continued with his efforts to find a cure for rheumatoid arthritis, without success (although ibuprofen has important uses in its treatment). Holding the original patent in his hands, Adams said, laughing, “We didn’t get anything. I think, in fact, we were supposed to be given a pound for signing away our signatures, but we didn’t even get that.”


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