John Oates: A closer look  pg. 4

The drug was methyldopa. At the time of Oates’s discovery, there were no effective drugs for treating patients with severe hypertension—the subset of hypertensive patients who are most susceptible to stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure. Methyldopa, developed and marketed as Aldomet by Merck, became the first.

The NIH group, headed by Albert Sjoerdsma, M.D., Ph.D., and Sidney Udenfriend, Ph.D., had not set out to discover methyldopa’s usefulness as an antihypertensive drug. The drug from Merck was simply an experimental tool, part of ongoing efforts to understand the biochemistry—synthesis and metabolism—of aromatic amines like norepinephrine and serotonin, as a way to gain information about hypertension and its treatment.

John Oates, M.D. with his research nurse, Sheilah Winn, R.N., who has worked with him since 1989.
Photo courtesy of the Oates family
“The pharmacologists at Merck had completed toxicology studies and commented to us that they had given rabbits doses of up to one gram per kilogram without lowering blood pressure or having any adverse effect,” he recalls, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “They said it can’t possibly be pharmacologically active.”

Aldomet was one of the major treatments for severe hypertension for about 15 years, Oates says. It was replaced by a newer generation of antihypertensive agents, but it is still used for certain indications, including high blood pressure in pregnancy.

Oates’s experience in the Sjoerdsma-Udenfriend unit set his career trajectory, he says.

“I think one of the most important things you can do as a young person entering science is to work with the right mentor—somebody’s who’s successful and having fun with it. Science is like most things in life: you win some and you lose some. In order to sustain through the ups and downs, you have to have tasted success in science and had the thrill of a discovery, or two, or three ...

“At the NIH there were a lot of young scientists my age who were really having a ball doing research, and it was because of the senior leaders who were creative, energetic, had good ideas, and were committed to clinical research. I was fortunate for having landed in a group like that,” Oates says.

It was in this dynamic and uniquely productive environment—where discoveries and approaches from the laboratory were applied to clinical research—that Oates’s vision for clinical pharmacology germinated. His ideas sprouted and took form in the Vanderbilt Division of Clinical Pharmacology, which Oates founded in 1963 and directed for 25 years.

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