2005: Death of Chemist Who Discovered Valium

Leo Sternbach helped turn Hoffman-La Roche into a big pharma, with 230 product patents, most famously Valium, the most prescribed drug in the U.S. in the 1970s.

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Valium, the most prescribed drug in the 1970s.
Valium, the most prescribed drug in the 1970s.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On September 28, 2005, the chemist and pharmacologist Leo Sternbach, discoverer of the chemical compound that – under the trade name Valium – helped calm down an entire generation, died at the age of 95. Sternbach worked most of his professional life for the drug company Hoffmann-La Roche. Roche saved Sternbach from possible death in the Holocaust; he made the pharma company a big player with the more than 230 products he patented under its name.

Leo Sternbach was born on May 7, 1908, in the seaside spa town of Abbazia, in Austria-Hungary – today Opatija, Croatia. His father, the Galician-born Michael Abracham Sternbach, was a pharmacist who ran a drugstore in Abbazia, where he was often assisted by his son. Leo’s mother was the former Piroska Cohn, a Hungarian Jew.

Leo had his primary education in Abbazia, but after it was annexed to Italy during World War I, he was sent for schooling to Poland, where the family eventually moved in 1926. He earned a pharmacy degree at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and, in 1930, his PhD in organic chemistry at the same institution.

After working in Vienna and then, beginning in 1937, in Zurich at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Sternbach moved in 1940 to Basel, where he was employed by Hoffman-La Roche. The following year, fearful of a possible invasion by Hitler’s Germany, the company arranged to transfer Sternbach and other Jewish scientists in its employ to its offices in the United States.

Sternbach and his wife, the former Herta Kreuzer (who was not Jewish), arrived in Jersey City, New Jersey, in June 1940, and he began working at the Roche laboratory in Nutley, N.J. In his early years at Roche, Sternbach discovered a way to synthesize biotin – also known as vitamin H – which is important for strengthening nails and hair, and he worked on anaesthetics for bloodless surgery.

By the mid-1950s, Roche assigned him to work on a tranquilizer that could compete with Miltown, made by its competitor Wallace Laboratories. Miltown was the first big antianxiety drug, but it had a number of side effects of its own. Sternbach decided to revisit a class of compounds he had first experimented with 20 years earlier while doing postdoctoral work in Poland. Though his goal then had been to synthesize certain dyes, he had a hunch regarding a formula he had studied at the time.

After testing 40 new variations on that compound, and finding them all pharmacologically inert, he was instructed to put the project aside and begin work on antibiotics. But when a clean-up of the lab revealed one more compound that had not been evaluated, he had it sent off for testing. The report he received back from Roche’s head of testing declared the substance had “hypnotic, sedative, and anti-strychnine effects in mice similar to meprobamate” (the chemical moniker of Miltown).

This formed the basis of the benzodiazepines – a class of nonsedating, antianxiety drugs that Roche first introduced in 1960, in the form of Librium, and then in improved form three years later as Valium.

Valium was the most prescribed drug in the United States in the years 1969-1982. At its peak, in 1978, some 2.3 billion doses of Valium were sold. Along with being short on side effects, Valium is also nontoxic, so taken alone it could not cause a fatal overdose. It is, however, addictive.

Hoffman-La Roche paid Sternbach $1 for the patent, and also a bonus of $10,000, as it did in cases of blockbuster drugs, and he was happy to continue working there for the rest of his career, as director of chemistry, and even after his retirement as a consultant, until shortly before his death.

Late in life, Sternbach told reporters that he had always tried out his drugs on himself, and that Valium had had the effect of making him drowsy, so that, “my wife doesn’t let me take it.” His drug of choice, he said, was blended Scotch.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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