Book: Laughing Gas, Viagra, and Lipitor by Jie Jack Li

Alas, not very good.

Jie Jack Li
Laughing Gas, Viagra, and Lipitor: The Human Stories Behind the Drugs We Use
Oxford University Press, 2006
ISBN-13: 978-0-19-530099-4
ISBN-10: 0-19-530099-8
244 pages

The discovery of new drugs is a fascinating subject and so I really wanted to like Laughing Gas, Viagra, and Lipitor: The Human Stories Behind the Drugs We Use. Alas, the book is mediocre at best.

Despite the oddly specific title, the book describes the history and origin of many drugs. There are chapters on antibiotics, cardiovascular drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs, anesthetics, and so on. Many drugs are discussed in each chapter. Indeed, probably too many since many of the discussions are so short as to be superficial.

The book begins with two forewords written by organic chemists. They're really more like material for cover blurbs, but they're printed as forewords. The first of them (and some other things in the book) suggests that author, Jie Jack Li, is writing for a general audience. If that's true, he leaves many things unexplained that he shouldn't. Even a science geek like me would have needed many trips to Wikipedia to get everything out of the book that I could have. If you don't know enough about organic chemistry to know what "total synthesis" is, you may not find this book an easy read. For another example, the sentence "Interestingly, a major new use of Taxol is as a coating on stents to prevent restenosis...." (p. 18) gets no further explanation.

I am no chemist and I'm the farthest thing in the world from a medical professional, but even I have noticed what appear to be two errors in the science in the book. Me Li says:

    Simply adding a methyl group to ibufenac provides
    ibuprofen, which is devoid of hepatoxicity.
    (p. 226)

The lack of liver- (that is, hepa-) toxicity may be true as a rule, but I'm pretty sure that if ibuprofen is overdosed, liver toxicity is a common result.

He also says:

    The liver metabolizes alcohol with an enzyme called
    alcohol dehydrogenase, which turns alcohol into
    acetaldehyde. Because acetaldehyde is acutely
    toxic, people -- including many Asians -- who lack
    alcohol dehydrogenase cannot tolerate much alcohol.
    (p. 130)

That doesn't make sense on the face of it. If someone can't turn alcohol into something more toxic, why would that cause the person to be intolerant of alcohol?

In fact, human metabolization of alcohol is a two step process. Alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. And then acetaldehyde is converted into acetic acid (which is pretty harmless and which subsequently gets excreted) by the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. People who have an "alcohol flush reaction" often do the first step more quickly than average and the second step less quickly than average. So they end up with too much acetaldehyde for a time.

In his dust-jacket photograph Mr Li is wearing a white lab coat and peering at a separatory funnel. From that, I take it that he is a scientist. Even by the standards of scientists, Mr Li's prose is often wooden and uninspiring. It's little better than the style I'd expect from a first- or second-year college student.

There are some nuggets of interesting information in this book. Who knew that Pfizer once had a program to look for antibiotics in dirt from exotic places? Still, as a whole, reading the book will be worth the time for few people. You'd do much better to read Derek Lowe's excellent blog.

The paintings and stamps related to medicinal chemistry that are reproduced in the book are neither useful to the reader nor particularly attractive.

There are several editing errors in the book. There's "vain" where "vein" is wanted (p. 42), "secreted" where "excreted" is wanted (p. 57), "Low" here "Lo" is wanted (p. 71), "excreted" where "secreted" is wanted (p. 169), and "Prince Beatrice" where "Princess Beatrice" is wanted (p. 203).

And while I am not of the opinion that it's always an error to put a modifier on a superlative, I would not write "fairly unique" (p. 142).

Posted: Mon - October 8, 2007 at 07:29 PM   Main   Category: