14 October 2005

Patents: Leo Sternbach

Today's Economist carries an obituary of Leo Sternbach, the inventor of "Valium" who died on 28 Sep 2005 at the age of 97.

The article records how the drug companies competed to make a tranquilliser without any of the side effects of existing products in the 1950s. Wallace Pharmaceuticals led the way with a tranquiliser that was an improvement on what had been available before. Sternbach was asked to develop something with just enough differences to avoid infringing Wallace's patent. Instead of analysing Wallace's invention, Sternbach took a different approach. Starting with research that he had carried out as a student, Sternbach tested 40 benzodiapene compounds until he came across a preparation that worked. The new drug was called "Librium" and put on sale in 1960. It was followed by a simpler but stronger version that Sternbach also developed called "Valium". It was remarkably popular during the 1970s but concern grew as to whether it was habit forming.

He invented many other products including Mogadon and Klonopin. Sternbach received US$1 for each patent - the Economist reports 241 of them - in consideration of his patent rights. His only other reward was a prize of US$10,000 from his employer for each outstanding invention until he was asked to give others a chance. He went into the office until he was 95 to keep up with what was going on.

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