How did you get interested in Medicinal Chemistry?
Long story...I started my “chemistry” study in 1956. The first 4 years, the programme was very broad, but at the end of what we would call the bachelor level now, I bought a book with the title “Chemistry at the Service of Mankind” and was impressed by the stories on penicillin, DDT, crop protection, herbicides; and by the perspectives of compounds with a biological activity in general.
For what is now called master’s degree, I studied under the supervision of Prof. Wijbe Nauta, who was not only a professor at the Vrije University Amsterdam but also research director of the local pharma company Brocades. My future in science was defined!
(I would like to add that the term Medicinal Chemistry was at that time hardly introduced in Europe, and the field was certainly not accepted as an independent discipline yet)
What was the topic of your PhD project?
The title of my PhD thesis was Synthesis 2-Alkyl-1-[ortho-alkyl phenyl]cyclohexanols (Synthesis, conformation and some pharmacological investigations).
It was interesting that I could make use of NMR with one of the first instruments in the country (60 megacycles at that time) and in vitro pharmacology techniques, both not very common at that time.
Can you tell us more about your Career?
In the sixties it was, in The Netherlands at least, not common to start your career with a postdoc position. One went after obtaining the degree straight to a position in research, teaching or similare. I joined the team of Prof. Nauta at Brocades, in the pharmacology department.
Later on, I became the scientific director of the Pharma division of the company Gist Brocades, which was a world leader in antibiotics research.
In 1979 I returned to academia to become the successor of Prof. Nauta.
As a special effort, I initiated a programme to stimulate the development of pharmaceutical research in Indonesia. This programme became very rewarding when we were able to introduce modern research in the « Fakultas Farmasi in Yogyakarta ». About ten local PhD programmes were completed and by far the most of the PhD's became full professor in Indonesia.
Currently I still serve science (EFMC, Dutch med. chem section. I am also editor of a scientific journal: DDT-T), serve society (active in the « Dutch Society Against Quackery ») and involve myself in some social aspects.
What were your research interests?
My research has been concentrated on the relationships between structure and activity of biologically active compounds, with the objective to obtain new substances with an attractive profile for using them as active ingredients in medicines, or to become tools in solving existing questions in pharmacological issues (mechanisms of actions, receptor identification, receptor structures, etc.)
As a field I had selected histaminergic ligands, both agonists and antagonists. We were able to contribute to the the knowledge about all four types of histamine receptors; in 1979 only the H1 and the H2 receptor had been identified.
What kind of skills are needed to be a good researcher?
For teaching, it is clear you should be able to transfer knowledge, but moreover - and maybe more importantly - to educate people in a broader sense, to stimulate scientific curiosity, to make sure the become 'independently' thinking scientists. For research, a med. chemist needs knowledge in a very broad field and be able to communicate with colleagues in other scientific fields.
What is the most embarrassing thing you did in the lab while doing experiments, e.g. explosions?
When I was a PhD student, I carried out a hydrogenation experiment. At a given moment the autoclave I used started to leak hydrogen! It made a terrible noise but was also extremely dangerous. The stupid thing was that I did the experiment during evening hours, being the sole person in the lab, inacceptable.
Did you experience any unfair situations during your scientific career?
It was during my years in industry. It happened twice that there was a vacancy for which I was told by management that I was the right person for but went to somebody which was senior. Do you understand? A clear case of mismanagement.
Another one: We had found a series of new ligands, with a very high activity at a given receptor. A co-worker of me told during an unofficial meeting at a department abroad about the finding. To our big surprise, one person attending the meeting filed a patent application on "our" series of compounds, with the activity we had found earlier. My co- worker had been imprudent, the other person involved showed an uncollegial, and even an inacceptable behaviour.
Which field of medicinal chemistry do you consider the most promising in the future?
Without any doubt the further increase of interdisciplinary - I even prefer the term « transdisciplinary ». Those approaches will determine the coming successes of med. chem. research
What would you like to ask from other medicinal chemists?
Please, accept that organic synthetic chemistry, having been for many years the driving force of med. Chem, plays no dominating role in med. Chem anymore. New perspectives come from biology.
And also, please, read the position paper on our discipline!
If you would like to know more about Prof. Timmerman, stay tuned to the YouTube Channel were we will publish the full interview!