Just What is a Toxicologist?


Nicholas Harding, the protagonist in The Pharm House, is a toxicologist by training, like myself. When I inform most people that I’m a toxicologist, I often receive a puzzled look. So in the event you are one of the puzzled, here is the definition of toxicology according to Wikipedia:

“Toxicology (from the Greek words τοξικός – toxicos “poisonous” and logos) is a branch of biology, chemistry, and medicine concerned with the study of the adverse effects of chemicals on living organisms. It is the study of symptoms, mechanisms, treatments and detection of poisoning, especially the poisoning of people.”

Yes! It’s the study of poison! Isn’t that cool!

All pharmaceutical companies employ toxicologists. When you go to the drug store to purchase drug X to do whatever it is you desire it to do, how do you know that it will not make your hair fall out, your heart palpitate, cause you to lose consciousness, have seizures or much, much worse? That’s where your toxicologist comes in. Before and during human clinical studies, we study new drugs looking for potential adverse effects or toxicities. It gets rather complicated, so I will avoid boring you with the details.

So, how did a “normal” guy like me get into studying poison? (more…)

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Berlin Wall – November 1989

My daughter and I have been digitizing the thousands of print family photos that we’ve accumulated over the years. I was looking through them and came across some that were memorable and also brought back one of the few twinges of regret that I have.

Those of you who are serious history buffs may recognize the significance of the date of November 1989 to the Berlin Wall. Well, the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. November 9 to be specific. Let’s go back.

In the fall of 1989, I was a young scientist/manager at Johnson & Johnson’s Ortho Pharmaceutical leading the dermatological toxicology group. We studied the effects of topical drugs on skin and other organ systems. One of our marketed products was under considerable challenge from competitors and regulatory groups regarding potential toxicity issues. We felt that our science was strong in support of our position. This was what my group was responsible for. I’m being deliberately vague with regard to the product. It’s not really relevant to the story.

I had found a journal article by an international expert that fully supported our internal position. This expert was on faculty at a university in West Berlin, Germany. We spoke by phone (this is before when email was big) several times. I reviewed his work and our discussions with my director and vice president. They said that someone needed to go to Berlin and meet with this scientist. I assumed that meant one of them would go to Berlin. But they decided to send me instead. I suspect it was partially a test to see if I could handle this on my own.

This was my first international trip on behalf of J&J and I was all on my own. That wasn’t an issue. I don’t mind traveling with others, but I’m one of those people who actually prefer to travel alone.

My Berlin host and I communicated and worked out the details of my visit. I was only going to spend one day with him. That was more than enough time to get the details of his studies on our product. My trip is scheduled for the middle of November 1989, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. (more…)

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