2018 Lasker-Debakey Clinical Medical Research Award Given to John Glen for Scottish Veterinarian’s Discovery & Development of Propofol, a Widely Used Anesthetic

The 2018 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award honors John B. (Iain) Glen (retired from AstraZeneca), a Scottish veterinarian who discovered and developed propofol, a chemical whose rapid action and freedom from residual effects have made it the most widely used agent for induction of anesthesia in patients throughout the world. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed propofol an “essential medicine” and at the time of that decision, more than 190 million people had received the drug. In 1972, Dr. Glen joined Imperial Chemistry Industries (ICI; through mergers, ICI eventually became AstraZeneca) to help find new short-acting intravenous anesthetics. Eventually he took charge of the enterprise. The type of drug he sought—an induction agent—is used to sedate people so they can then tolerate inhaled anesthetics that maintain unconsciousness for long procedures. Administration of these gases through a mask can cause discomfort, and some of them can provoke an initial feeling of suffocation. The gold standard induction agent at the time was called thiopentone, which induced anesthesia quickly, but had limitations. Most prominent among them is that it builds up in the body, so repeated use during surgery would cause patients to remain unconscious long afterward. Dr. Glen’s team wanted to find a medication that possesses the anesthetic power of thiopentone, but allows rapid recovery. In addition to serving as a new induction agent, such a drug might maintain sedation and thus provide an injected alternative to inhaled anesthetics. The group also aimed to reduce common unpleasant after-effects of anesthesia such as nausea and vomiting.
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