Mount Vernon Nazarene University: Life Changing

Great Chemists

P. Roy Vagelos

Pindaros Roy Vagelos was born in 1929 in Westfield, New Jersey. As a boy, he peeled potatoes and washed dishes at the luncheonette run by his Greek immigrant parents in Rahway, N.J. Many of the diner's customers were scientists from the nearby Merck pharmaceutical firm. Roy and his sister Joan liked to ask them questions about their work.

When Vagelos attended the University of Pennsylvania, he chose chemistry as his major. He then earned an M.D. from Columbia University. He did research at the National Institutes of Health (1956-1966), then chaired the biochemistry department at Washington University School of Medicine (1966-1975). He discovered acyl carrier protein, which helps cells synthesize fatty acids.

Vagelos returned to his home town in 1976 when he was appointed president of Merck, Sharp & Dohme Research Labs. He became CEO of Merck & Company, Inc. in 1985 and served until his retirement in 1994. Under his leadership, Merck developed highly successful new drugs including Mevacor (which inhibits cholesterol synthesis) and Proscar (used to treat enlarged prostate). Merck became one of the largest and most profitable pharmaceutical firms in the world, and it was voted America's Most Admired Corporation seven years in a row.

During the mid 1970s, Vagelos hoped to find a drug that would combat human parasites such as hookworm. He did not succeed, but he found that a substance called ivermectin was effective against heartworm in dogs. It soon became the world's largest-selling veterinary drug.

In the early 1980s, a Merck scientist predicted that ivermectin might also be effective against river blindness.

River blindness is caused by a parasitic worm (Onchocerca vulvulus) transmitted by black flies that breed near fast-moving rivers. When an infected fly bites a person, the worms enter the body and begin to multiply. They cause severe itching and skin lesions. Left untreated, the worms scar the eyes and eventually cause blindness.

Onchocerciasis is the leading cause of blindness in Africa and Latin America. An estimated 1 million have already lost their eyesight; 18 million more are infected; and 126 million are at risk.

Merck conducted a clinical trial of ivermectin in Senegal. The drug was safe and effective. But the countries that needed it most were too poor to be able to pay for it. Vagelos decided to supply the drug for free. So far, Merck has donated 29 million tablets worth $80 million. Just one pill a year prevents a person from developing river blindness.

P. Roy Vagelos received the 1999 Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute in recognition for his "shining example of corporate humanitarianism".

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