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Posted by on Dec 21, 2010 in Ethics, Pharma

Epo Discoverer Dies

Epo Discoverer Dies


Doing what it does best, the New York Times provides an elegantly written (albeit relatively brief) obituary, this time for Eugene Goldwasserthe U of C biochemist who discovered erythropoietin (aka Epo) and famously shared his then-unpatented discovery with a biotech startup, Amgen.* The fledgling company became the big house that Epo built, and the compound provided substantial revenue, as well, for Big Pharma’s JNJ and Roche.

After about 2 decades of failed animal work, from 1955 to 1975, the NYT recounts, Goldwasser was able to isolate a tiny amount of Epo from a dried, concentrated slab of urine that had been collected from Japanese patients with aplastic anemia. The paper describes a mind-blowing exchange between Goldwasser and the Japanese courier of the urine, Dr. Takaji Mayake, in the lobby of Chicago’s stodgily refined Palmer House hotel.

The isolation process took about 2 years, and Goldwasser (as anchor author) published his landmark paper, “Purification of human erythropoietin,” in 1977. (Mayake was first author.) The rest, per the tired cliche, is history, thanks to the work of Amgen scientist Fu-Kuen Lin. Lin cloned Epo’s human gene, which enabled mass production of the protein. Results of the first human trial of Epo (a combined phase 1/2 affair) were published in the NEJM in 1987 (25 anemic patients with end-stage renal disease on hemodialysis). According to a Google Scholar search, that article has been cited by more than 1400 others.


Goldwasser recounted his experience with Epo in a 1996 essay, “Erythropoietin: a somewhat personal history,” for the medical-history journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Online access to the article remains elusive, but the story is also relayed in Merrill Goozner’s The $800-Million Pill (2005),** which draws on Goldwasser’s essay, in addition to interviews with the scientist.

* Known at the time as Applied Molecular Genetics, Inc.

** Parts of which are available through Google Books.

A schematic blob of molecular Epo, according an anonymous Wikipedia donor.

bmartin (1127 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.