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'Mother's Little Helper' turns 40

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 16, 2003

NUTLEY, N.J. - Mother's little helper is not so little anymore.

Valium, the drug that revolutionized the treatment of anxiety and became a cultural icon, is 40 years old this year.

The drug owes its success to the stubborn streak of chemist Leo Sternbach, who refused to quit after his boss at Hoffmann-La Roche ended a project to develop a tranquilizer to compete with a rival company's drug.

Sternbach tested one last version and in just a day, he got results: The compound made animals relaxed and limp.

Sternbach had made the discovery that led to Valium. Approved for use in 1963, it became the country's most prescribed drug from 1969 to 1982.

"It had no unpleasant side effects. It gave you a feeling of well-being," Sternbach, 95, said. "Only when the sales figures came in, then I realized how important it was."

The Roche Group, Hoffman-La Roche's parent, sold nearly 2.3-billion pills stamped with the trademark "V" at its 1978 peak.

While its name was derived from the Latin word for being strong, Valium soon picked up nicknames: "Executive Excedrin," for its use by the corporate jet set, and "Mother's Little Helper," after the title of a Rolling Stones tune about an overstressed housewife who "goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper."

Most prescriptions were written by family doctors, rather than psychiatrists, and most users were women.

Chosen as one of the 25 most influential Americans of the 20th century by U.S. News & World Report, Sternbach was born in Croatia and began his career in 1940 at Roche's headquarters in Switzerland after earning a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Krakow in Poland.

Fearing Nazis would occupy Switzerland, the company sent its Jewish scientists to the United States. In the United States, Sternbach helped organize Roche's new chemical laboratory in Nutley, and his first big success was synthesizing biotin, a B vitamin that breaks down fatty acids and carbohydrates.

With Valium, Sternbach had created a new class of tranquilizers named benzodiazepines, which were safer and more effective than previous treatments such as barbiturates, opiates, alcohol and herbs.

Unlike earlier drugs, Valium did not slow breathing, so patients couldn't use it to commit suicide. But it was overused, Sternbach said. Some patients became addicted, so a doctor's visit was required for refills.

Still, benzodiazepines remain the most prescribed anxiety drugs, partly because they start working in as little as one hour, slowing brain activity. They also are used for treating panic and phobia disorders and insomnia, as well as for calming patients before surgery.

"They were the first weapons in our arsenal for fighting anxiety disorders," said Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. "It was a huge leap."

Sternbach retired in 1973 but worked most days until recently. He mentored young scientists, corresponded and consulted with others, and worked on his biography, due out this fall under the title Good Chemistry: The Life and Times of Valium Inventor Leo Sternbach.

Until a decade ago, one-fourth of Roche's sales came from Sternbach discoveries.

Said George Abercrombie, president and chief executive officer of Hoffmann-La Roche: "Within every company, there is a person or two whose legacy becomes the hallmark of what the company is about, and for Roche, it is Dr. Sternbach."

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