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Syntex formed to manufacture progesterone


The beginnings of Syntex
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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George Rosenkranz, another refugee from the Hitler days, he was Hungarian and got his PhD in Switzerland under one of the giants of steroid chemistry, Ružička who himself had won the Nobel prize, and then he left during Hitler days. He was in Switzerland so he was able to leave easier and left and fled to Cuba. And Cuba, again not exactly a hotbed of chemistry, but he survived and worked for a small pharmaceutical company. And a few years later was hired by a minute Mexican pharmaceutical company named Syntex as their chief chemist and research... chief chemist. Not research... he didn’t do any research. Now, why Syntex and why Mexico?

So, I just have to digress again a little bit into chemistry but I think it’s important. I think it is drawn here probably easier than in... in larger letters than in some of the others. It is... Okay. I was hoping it would be shown here. Yes. I’ll return, by getting it back to cortisone in just a moment. Here is cortisone. Here is progesterone, a much simpler steroid hormone. You can see the difference between progesterone, the female sex hormone, and cortisone, the cortical steroid, is first of all this oxygen C11 and then the more complicated side chain. In other words, two more hydroxyl groups where there are no hydroxyl groups in progesterone. That’s the only difference in this here, but even progesterone is very difficult to synthesise. And along came an American chemist in the late 1930s. A real maverick. In some respects, a nut, but a genial nut named Russell Marker. He didn’t even have a PhD. Not because he was not qualified to get one because he had a real fight with his professor, a famous American, Morris Kharasch, and never got his PhD. Then he worked at Rockefeller Institute and ended up in an enormous argument with his supervisor there and left that and went to Penn State and worked at Penn State. And worked on a series of steroids, which are of this type and they’re called steroidal sapogenins, and the only difference again between these and these is you see they have two more rings up there, which are labelled as E and F. Now, that’s molecular garbage you might say because that makes this of course even more complex than these steroids over here. These occur in plants and they are particularly common in Mexican plants though they have also many others, and they are members of the Yam family. Dioscorea is the botanical genus name and one of them is called Diosgenin. Diosgenin has this particular structure. Cholesterol incidentally would have the same ring system here, also a double bond here, hydroxyl here, and there are other steroidal sapogenins. And you can see some for instance, here to... to show you. For instance, here is another one called hecogenin and you see the difference between that is only it has also an oxygen here. And this, for instance, comes from agave, from sisal and comes from the waste production of sisal and there were a lot of sisal plantations in Mexico as well as in East Africa at that time.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Syntex, Mexico, Rockefeller Institute, Sapogenins, Dioscorea, Diosgenin, hecogenin, agave, sisal, George Rosenkranz, Morris Selig Kharasch, Leopold Ružička, Russell Earl Marker

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008