Nobel Laureate Who Championed Drug Discovery: Dr. James Black

Sir James Black was a Scottish Physician. He was one of the pioneers of analytical pharmacology, the science of determining the mechanism of actions of drugs. He also championed medicinal chemistry, which is the basic science of new drug discovery. He excelled at building new active molecules, that are similar to the structure of a naturally occurring chemical, which is implicated in a disease. For "his discoveries of important principles for drug treatment," he received the Noble Prize for Medicine in 1988. He was also awarded the UK's highest honor, the Order of Merit in 2000.

Dr. Black was the inventor of two important drugs, namely, propranolol (the first beta-blocker developed by Dr. Black in the 1960s) and cimetidine (the first H-2 receptor blocker developed by Dr. Black in the 1970s). Both propranolol and cimetidine targeted new pathways and turned out to be blockbuster molecules that transformed the practices of cardiology and gastroenterology, respectively. 

Sir James Whyte Black
Dr. James Black
Image Credit: Nobel Foundation

Though he mastered both analytical pharmacology and medicinal chemistry more than did many of his contemporary physicians, Dr. Black did not receive formal qualifications in these specialties or any other specialized research training after receiving his basic medical training. Dr. Black received his medical qualification from the University of St. Andrews. After he was diagnosed with osteoclastoma, a bone tumor, he received radiotherapy and remained partly disabled for the rest of his life. He was no more interested in clinical practice and instead chose to be a teacher and researcher in physiology. Then, he developed a keen interest in cardiovascular physiology and analytical pharmacology during his laboratory experiments over the next few years. 

Impressed by his work, Dr. Black was granted research funding by a pharma company to identify and develop new agents that can selectively inhibit the effects of adrenaline on the heart in patients with angina. In a short span of time, he was successful at developing propranolol, the first in its class of beta-blockers. Later, he received research funding from another pharma company to develop a new agent reducing acid production in the stomach of patients with peptic ulcers. He was successful again and developed cimetidine, the first in its class of H-2 blockers.   

After these discoveries, he continued to teach and advance the specialties of analytical pharmacology and medicinal chemistry at distinguished institutions, such as the University College of London and King's College, London. He also founded the James Black Foundation, an independent research group. The last assignment in his professional career was that of the Chancellor of the University of Dundee. He loved his students and was an excellent mentor to them. His legacy continues to inspire the medical and scientific community. Meanwhile, his inventions have continued to touch and save the lives of millions of patients worldwide.   


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About the author: Dr. Naval Asija is a licensed MBBS Physician from India. MBBS is the equivalent of the MD degree offered by international medical schools. He is based in Delhi, India, and works as a medical writer, editor, and consultant. He supports medical researches as an author's editor, medical communication companies involved in medico-marketing activities, and medical technology companies in improving their products. He can be contacted via his LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/navalasija/

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