The price of the ultimate Northwestern honor – getting a building named after you – has never been released by the university, but the construction of the Silverman Hall for Molecular Therapeutics & Diagnostics might give the ambitious student a clue. It’s named for Richard B. Silverman, a Northwestern chemistry professor, and is being funded by royalty fees collected from his invention of the main chemical compound in Lyrica, an anti-epileptic drug manufactured by Pfizer, Inc.
Although the $700 million Northwestern netted from selling part of their royalty rights to the drug has been widely reported, the impressive workings of Lyrica itself have been left for the chemistry nerds to gawk at. It may have taken a PhD to develop the drug, but it can be explained in terms even the men’s basketball team can understand.
The nerves in the brain send signals to communicate with each other. Sometimes damaged nerves send out more electrical signals than they need to. In people with diabetes, this abnormal firing causes severe stabbing, burning, or shooting pain. When clusters of these nerve cells – called neurons – also fire randomly and repeatedly, it leads to a condition called epilepsy, which is a brain disorder that causes its victims to have occasional to regular seizures.
Silverman joined Northwestern in 1976 and since then, his research has dealt with the mechanisms of epilepsy and neurodegenerative disorders. His group works on understanding the mechanisms of how drugs work, especially ones that deal with inhibiting enzymes. In 1989, they created an organic molecule that binds to nervous system tissues, those same nerves that sometimes over-fire.
In testing the molecule on mice, they found that this “pregabalin” (the scientific name for Lyrica) molecule had an ability to suppress seizures. After testing it and refining it, it was finally approved by the FDA in 2004 and sold by Pfizer, Inc. Its labeled use is for the treatment of partial seizures, fibromyalgia (a chronic pain condition), and nerve pain in those with diabetes.
Silverman now receives royalties from the sale of the drug, as does Northwestern, because he did his research here. Silverman has even donated part of his own royalties to Northwestern, which will be put towards the building named in his honor. Once it’s completed in 2009, Silverman will be moving into the new labs, although he’ll get a smaller office than the one he currently occupies.
“They aren’t planning to knock down any walls for me, but that’s fine,” he said. “I’m just pleased I’ve had the opportunity to give back to the university.”