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Rock Lyrics Predicted Drug Discoveries


Many people know that an eternal link exists between science and music. For example, Russian composer Alexander Borodin was as well known for his chemical work on aldehydes as his symphonies and string quartets. Many scientists have side careers, or at least hobbies, as musicians. These include NIH Director Francis Collins, who has entertained many people with his singing and guitar playing (note the inlaid mother-of-pearl double helix on the guitar’s fretboard).

Dr-Collins

What you may have missed is that many rock musicians, who’ve long been associated with illicit drug abuse, clearly envisioned numerous modern pharmaceutical innovations in their songs. I’m not talking about overt drug tracks like J.J. Cale’s Cocaine (popularized by Eric Clapton), the Beatles Doctor Robert, or the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper. I’m talkin’ tunes that predated and anticipated later medicinal developments, as reflected in their lyrics. Let me share a few examples.

Jefferson Airplane lead singer Grace Slick sang in White Rabbit, the group’s 1967 top-10 tune “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small”. What you didn’t know was that the song foretold the development of several medicines for aging men. That first passage envisioned the development of the ED drugs Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis. Those drugs, according to the R&B group Color Me Badd, are the pharmaceutical equivalent of saying I Wanna Sex You Up. The second part of that lyric, about a pill that makes you smaller, heralded the future development of prostate-shrinking drugs such as Proscar and Avodart.

Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1951 blues standard
Eyesight to the Blind (made more famous by The Who in their 1969 rock opera Tommy) predicted the development of gene therapy treatments for blindness for a form of Leber congenital amaurosis, as well as the use of VEGF inhibitors Lucentis, Avastin, and Eylea for sight-robbing macular degeneration. Its additional lyric about enabling “the deaf begin to hear” envisaged the development of cochlear implants years before Slade’s 1973 “Cum on Feel the Noize” (subsequently covered in 1983 by Quiet Riot).

When The Doors’ Jim Morrison declared in 1967’s
Break on Through (To the Other Side)you know the day destroys the night, night divides the day, tried to run, tried to hide, break on through to the other side” he was clearly foretelling the development of two new breakthrough drugs. This may have been fueled by his legendary drug binges, which made it difficult for him to sleep through the night or stay awake during the day. Had he lived long enough, he would have been ecstatic at the development of sleep drugs such as Ambien (thus avoiding having the “day” destroy the night), and anti-narcolepsy meds such as Provigil or Ritalin that keep you awake during the day.

Paul Simon’s 1983 solo classic
Hearts and Bones was prescient, “You take two bodies and you twirl them into one, their hearts and their bones, and they won't come undone”. Simon must have foreseen the use of bone marrow derived stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue, a process currently being tested in a number of clinical trials.

British pop band Kajagoogoo’s catchy 1983 hit
Too Shy predicted (in fact, pleaded) for anti-shyness medications. According to the lyrics “You’re too shy shy…..modern medicine falls short of your complaints”. Modern medicine ultimately developed shyness medications, although many question why simple shyness (under the guise of a social anxiety disorder) is being treated as a mental disorder, with selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft.

Jackson Brown’s1972 hit
Doctor My Eyes, with the lyric, “Doctor, my eyes, Tell me what is wrong, Was I unwise, to leave them open for so long” foretold the development of Restasis to increase tear production.

In 1985, Paul Rodgers of The Firm sang in
Radioactive, “I’m not your captive, turn me loose tonight, cause I’m radioactive”. Rodgers foresaw the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 1997 elimination of the requirement for thyroid cancer patients (who are receiving treatment with radioactive isotopes [e.g. iodine I-131]) to be quarantined in hospitals. Exactly where these patients are supposed to go until their radioactivity decays to a safe level remains an unresolved problem.

Following the FDA approval of a new medicine, most biotech and pharma companies throw a big party to celebrate. What song is most likely to be played at these celebrations? My money’s on Huey Lewis and the News’s 1984 hit
I Want a New Drug. Huey croons, “I want a new drug, one that does what it should, one that won’t make me feel too bad, one that won’t make me feel too good”. His mention of drugs that won’t make him feel too bad clearly refers to the side effects that plague a number of marketed drugs (and keep many potential medications from ever being sold). But can a drug really make you feel too good? Turns out they can. A clinical trial of Pfizer’s tanezumab in arthritis was halted for exactly that reason. The drug, a nerve growth factor inhibitor, was such an effective pain reliever that some patients overdid their exercise routines and actually wore out their joints, which then needed replacement.

Women of a certain age inspired Carole King’s 1971 classic “
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (previously a 1967 hit for Aretha Franklin). The song foreshadows the development of hormone replacement therapy with the lyrics “You make me feel so good inside….you make me feel so alive….you make me feel like a natural woman”. Hormone replacement meds, such as Premarin and Prempro, were widely used for years by post-menopausal women to restore reduced levels of naturally produced estrogen and progesterone. However, those drugs were later realized to have significant health risks, and their use has dropped precipitously in recent years.

Cream’s 1967 song
Strange Brewkilling what’s inside of you” both reflected and predicted the development of anti-cancer drugs made via a fermentation process. Examples include mitomycin-C (developed in 1955 by Kyowa Hakko) and Bristol Myers Squibb’s epothilone B analog Ixempra, FDA approved in 2007.

The Doobie Brother’s popular 1976 song
It Keeps You Runnin’ prophesized the use (and abuse) of Epogen (erythropoietin) by long distance runners, Olympic cross-country skiers, and Tour de France cyclists. It was likely found on Lance Armstrong’s iPod back in the day.

Drug discovery, as I've written about many times, is a tough business. But as the Rolling Stones might put it, “
You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need”. Need proof? Remember that Viagra was originally being developed by Pfizer as a heart drug to treat angina when something popped up in their clinical trials and revealed an unusual (but desirable) side effect. The trial results now stand tall as a part of the medical history behind one of the most profitable drugs ever sold.

Finally, I’ll quash the oft-quoted theory that the lyrics in Johnny Cash’s biggest hit, 1963’s
Ring of Fire, was a plea to develop new hemorrhoid medications. It’s actually about the transformative power of love. Interesting interpretation, though.
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