James Black Biography (1924-)


Sir James Black was one of the founders of a revolution in the way pharmaceutical companies search for medicines. He developed a method of discovering andevaluating new medicines by studying the basic biological mechanisms that underlie disease. His approach led to new, more effective treatments for heartailments, including heart attack, and to the first successful drug to treat ulcers. For his pioneering efforts, Black shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with George H. Hitchings and Gertrude Belle Elion of Burroughs Wellcome Co. in the United States.

James Whyte Black was born on June 14, 1924, in Uddingston, Scotland, to a working-class family. His father was a Scottish coal miner who worked his way up to mining engineer. Black was the youngest of four sons. One of his older brothers studied medicine and Black soon followed in his footsteps. At age fifteen, he won a residential scholarship to St. Andrew's University, where he received his medical degree in 1946. He remained as an assistant lecturer from1946 to 1947 before traveling to Malaysia to serve as a senior lecturer in physiology at the University of Malaya from 1947 to 1950. He returned to Scotland in 1950 and lectured in physiology at Glasgow Veterinary School until 1958. During this time he began research on the mechanism of increase in gastricsecretions caused by the body's production of histamine. This research formed the basis for his later work on blocking histamine receptors (chemical groups in plasma membrane or cell interior that have an affinity for a specific chemical or compound, in this case histamine) to reduce gastric secretions. During his time in Glasgow, Black also became familiar with the alpha and betaadrenergic receptors , which are responsible for regulating heart beat.

Black joined Imperial Chemical Industries in 1958. There he sought better ways of treating angina pectoris , a painful disease caused by insufficient oxygenation of the heart. The painful episodes suffered by angina patients are caused by increased heart rate, which increases the heart's requirement for oxygen. Black's research led him to theorize that a drug that would neutralize the effects of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, which mediate heartrate, would relieve the symptoms of angina.

The existence of receptors for these hormones had been understood since 1948,when the biochemist Raymond P. Ahlquist first described their action. Blackdeveloped a chemically similar but nonfunctional version of the active hormones that would block one of these receptors, the beta receptor. His first studies were with analogs of isoprenaline , a compound similar to noradrenaline.One of these analogs, known as propanolol or the trade name Inderol , had thedesired effect. It constricted heart muscle, stopping angina attacks.

In 1964 Black joined the British subsidiary of Smith Kline & French Laboratories. There he worked on new approaches to treating intestinal ulcers. Black knew from his earlier studies that histamine stimulated the secretion of excess acid that causes ulcers. The antihistamines in use at that time inhibited muscle contractions but not acid secretion. Black attacked the problem using the same strategy that worked in the development of the angina treatment--he sought a chemical that would inhibit histamine receptors , blocking the action of the hormone . Many thousands of compounds were tested. Finally in 1972 a partial histamine receptor antagonist was found, guanylhistamine. Unfortunately, it had serious side effects and clinical tests were halted in 1974. After further modification to the chemical structure, Black's group introducedcimetidine, now known as Tagamet (registered trademark), a successful ulcerdrug.

Black himself left Smith Kline in 1973. He spent four years as head of the department of pharmacology at University College in London. Then in 1978 he returned to industry, accepting a post as director of therapeutic research at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Kent. He remained there until 1984, whenthe lure of academia led him to King's College of Medicine and Dentistry, where he remains today.

In 1988 Black was honored with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, anaward he shared with George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion, pharmaceutical researchers from Burroughs Wellcome in the United States. It is unusual for the prize to go to pharmacologists, and the award was a recognition of a truly outstanding contribution to medicine.

Black's success in designing new medicines may be attributed in part to the rational method he employed. Instead of randomly searching for chemicals witha physiological effect, he sought to understand the underlying biological processes and designed drugs that mimic life processes. To test his drugs, he designed "bioassays" that tested how well his drugs would work in the body.

Black is a shy man who does not like to publicize his personal life. He is said to enjoy reading beyond his scientific subjects, music, and the arts. He was married for many years; his wife, Hilary, died in 1987. The couple had onedaughter, Stephanie. Black has received several awards and honorary degreesfor his work. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1976 and received its Mullard Award in 1978. He received the Albert Lasker Clinical Medicine Award in 1976 and was elected a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1991. He was knighted in 1981.

Recent Updates

July 14, 2004: Black was awarded one of the Royal Society's three 2004Royal Medals "for his work in both academia and industry, pioneering a new era of rational drug discovery. His work has played a major influence in elevating British pharmacology and pharmaceutical research to its current eminentinternational stature." Source: Royal Society, www.royalsoc.ak.uk, July 14, 2004.

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