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Starting with SerotoninWhen Albert Sjoerdsma, M.D., Ph.D., arrived at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in the early 1950s, hypertension still regularly debilitated and killed people. He resolved to change this. Sjoerdsma had read that, when given intravenously, serotonin dramatically elevated a person’s blood pressure. Maybe, the young researcher reasoned, he could manipulate serotonin within the body, by blocking a key enzyme in its chemical “pathway,” and bring blood pressure down.

This was revolutionary thinking. Most drug discovery at the time was a matter of luck, not rational conception. And little was known about serotonin except that it was involved in the constriction of blood vessels during clotting.

For twenty years, Sjoerdsma explored wide-ranging, uncharted territory in his Experimental Therapeutics Branch of the National Heart Institute. Because of his ground-breaking serotonin studies, he diagnosed and defined a cancer known as the carcinoid syndrome; established the mechanism of action of the first antidepressants, which originated in a major drug company’s tuberculosis program; measured serotonin, dopamine, and other amines in bananas and other foods; discovered the antihypertensive, Aldomet® (a former Top-10 drug); identified treatment for the skin scourge, scleroderma, and the unusual high-blood-pressure disorder, pheochromocytoma; probed the biochemical nature of rapid-eye-movement sleep, and much, much more.

Assisted by the laboratory methods and genius of his biochemist partner, Sidney Udenfriend, a sophisticated New Yorker who “clicked” with the rough erstwhile farm boy and University of Chicago standout, and by top-notch, recently graduated M.D.s, Sjoerdsma built a one-of-a-kind clinical research enterprise. He called his band of young associates the “Wild Bunch,” and together, they made medical history and had fun.

An advocate of designing drugs that work by inhibiting enzymes, Sjoerdsma later enjoyed success as a worldwide leader in the pharmaceutical industry, eventually serving as president of the Merrell Dow Research Institute, headquartered in Cincinnati. With a talented cadre of scientists, the unpredictable innovator developed the first-ever rationally designed antiepileptic (Sabril®), also used today in a debilitating infantile spasm disorder, and the first-ever non-sedating antihistamine, Seldane®, replaced in time by its metabolite, Allegra®. His pièce de résistance, however, was the first 100-percent cure for deadly African sleeping sickness—a drug known simply as DFMO. Long before American eyes opened to Third World health tragedies, Sjoerdsma had a lab devoted to research on parasitic diseases, as well as more traditional cancer and heart disease programs. He also contributed to the early treatment of AIDS patients.

Because of his inspired work at the NIH and the physicians whom he trained—and who then spread his research gospel to academia—the tough-talking and straight-shooting Al Sjoerdsma became known as the Father of Clinical Pharmacology. Gifted at discovery, he always practiced good science, “followed his nose,” and optimized the research odds in his favor.

And when he could, he shot craps.

“Starting with Serotonin” is his high-rolling story—lead by lead by compelling lead—as researched, written, and ultimately reconstructed, over six years, by prize-winning journalist Ann G. Sjoerdsma, his daughter.


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“Starting with Serotonin” is a hardcover book with 617 pages of text, including extensive endnotes and appendix material, and 16 pages of photographs. We expect it to be available soon in e-book form.

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