Valium, the drug that revolutionized the treatment of anxiety and became a cultural icon, is 40 years old this year.
The drug owes its success to the stubborn streak of chemist Leo Sternbach, who refused to quit after his boss at Hoffmann-La Roche ended a project to develop a tranquilizer to compete with a rival company's drug. Sternbach tested one last version and in just a day, he got the results: The compound made animals relaxed and limp.
Sternbach had made the discovery that eventually led to Valium. It was approved for use in 1963 and became the country's most prescribed drug from 1969 to 1982. Valium also was referred to as a "doll" -- one of the pills popped by female characters in novelist Jacqueline Susann's racy 1966 best-seller "Valley of the Dolls." Most of the prescriptions were written by family doctors rather than psychiatrists, and the majority of users were women.
With Valium, Sternbach gave the company its first blockbuster. Sternbach had created an entire new class of tranquilizers named benzodiazepines, which were safer and more effective than previous treatments such as barbiturates, opiates, alcohol and herbs.
Unlike earlier drugs, Valium did not slow breathing, so patients couldn't use it to commit suicide. But it was overused, Sternbach said; some patients became addicted, so a doctor's visit was required for refills.
Still, benzodiazepines remain the most prescribed anxiety drugs, partly because they start working as fast as one hour, slowing brain activity. They also are used for treating panic and phobia disorders and insomnia, calming patients before surgery and relaxing muscles.
Sternbach officially retired in 1973, but worked most days until recently. He mentored young scientists, corresponded and consulted with others, and worked on his biography, due out this fall under the title, "Good Chemistry: The Life and Times of Valium Inventor Leo Sternbach."
Sternbach's credits include 241 patents, 122 publications, honorary degrees and other awards. His other breakthroughs include the sleeping pills Dalmane and Mogadon, Klonopin for epileptic seizures and Arfonad, for limiting bleeding during brain surgery.
"He's an inventor's inventor," "Within every company, there is a person or two whose legacy becomes the hallmark of what the company is about, and for Roche, it is Dr. Sternbach."