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Great Unintended Scientific Discoveries

In the latest episode of Mental Floss, Derek Muller is on loan from Veritasium to dish out two dozen unintended scientific discoveries, including a few you've probably heard of (like penicillin*) and a bunch you probably haven't (like Viagra).

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*While we're on the subject of penicillin, there's more to its discovery than you've probably been led to believe. In fact, Alexander Fleming himself termed his importance in the development of therapeutic penicillin the "Fleming Myth."

[Mental Floss]

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DISCUSSION

Essentially, Drug Discovery as a discipline operates on industrial-strength luck.

Besides the example of penicillin and Viagra, there is also:

1. Mustine (chemotherapy agent)—discovered when a few hundred American GIs were accidentally gassed with mustard gas in WWII.

2. Cisplatin (chemotherapy agent)—discovered when a lab studying the effect of electricity on bacteria bought a bunch of platinum-plated electrodes.

3. Lithium (mood stabilizer)—discovered when doctors were testing the metabolism of urate (they used lithium urate as it was the easiest form of urate to work with in the lab), and one of the volunteers happened to be a bit mentally unstable.

4. Nitroglycerin (antihypertensive and anti-anginal)—discovered when doctors noticed that workers at nitroglycerin plants all got headaches on the weekend.

5. Disulfram (for the treatment of alcoholism)—discovered when a doctor noticed that all the workers at vulcanized rubber factory stopped drinking.

6. Iproniazed (antidepressant)—discovered when doctors at a tuberculosis sanitarium (the drug was originally sold for the treatment of TB) noticed that their patients are all became inexplicably happy.

7. Thorazine (antipsychotic)—scientists were looking for a allergy drug that does not put you to sleep, instead they found a compound that was

8. Phenolphthalein (laxative)—discovered when the Imperial German government began using this compound to test for wine adulteration, which resulted in a massive diarrhea epidemic in the country.

Even today, with "rational" drug design and fancy combinatorial chemistry, discovering new drugs is still based on luck, where scientists toss thousands and thousands of chemical against the disease and see what sticks.