Nutley, NJ: Everyone has heard of Valium, the anti-anxiety medication that upheld unmatched brand recognition until Prozac was introduced. Now, the drug?s maker, Roche, is making sure everyone knows who gave America its first prescription household name.
This May, Valium turned 40, and the scientist who created it, Dr. Leo Sternbach, turned 95. In honor of both milestones, Roche coordinated what ?started out as an internal event,? according to Charles Alfaro, executive director of corporate and business communications.
Employees gathered on Roche?s Nutley campus, which is where Sternbach made his discovery in 1954. He was presented with a cake that read, ?Happy Birthday Valium and Dr. Sternbach,? and was topped with three supersize pills.
The event was planned for May because of Sternbach?s birthday, but also because it is National Mental Health Awareness Month, during which several media outlets are already prone to run mental-health-related stories.
Two reporters ? Nick Paumgarten from The New Yorker, and Lewis Krauskopf from The Record, a local New Jersey newspaper ? were invited to the celebration. Before long, the ?selective media opportunity,? as Alfaro described it, evolved into an opportune platform for the company to portray its history and continued pattern of innovation.
The coverage in The New Yorker and The Record led to pick-up by several internet and broadcast news outlets. The AP also ran an extensive story earlier this month.
Garnering interest for the event, according to Greg Tarmin, VP for MS&L, Roche?s agency of record for US corporate affairs, ?was easy in the sense that everyone knows Valium and thinks they understand the story.? However, he added, ?getting people to take it to the next step by looking at what it really means for Roche and other innovative drug companies was the challenge.?
Alfaro explained, ?We wanted to remind people that it is our history of developing innovative products like Valium that gave us the resources to invest in R&D for newer drugs. People are not only paying for the treatments today, but also the developments of tomorrow.?
Roche?s most recent breakthroughs are Pegasys, a treatment for hepatitis C, which was approved at the end of 2002, and Fuzeon, a treatment for advanced HIV/AIDS that received FDA approval earlier this year. The company is banking on the success of the two drugs following the release of Tamiflu (for influenza) and Xenical (for obesity), which have not sold well.
The celebration may have resulted in an inadvertent plug for Pegasys and Fuzeon (not to mention the entire pharmaceutical industry, which is repeatedly questioned about pricing), but Tarmin insisted it ?was a corporate effort.?
?The key message is that Valium and Dr. Sternbach are icons that reflect what kind of company Roche is,? said Alfaro.
Sternbach is credited with discovering the entire class of tranquilizers to which Valium belongs. Known as Benzodiazepines, the drugs cause dose-related depression of the central nervous system, and are also used in Roche?s Librium, Versed, and Klonopin. As recently as 1994, Roche products that Sternbach had a hand in developing accounted for 28% of the company?s worldwide drug sales.
Approved by the FDA in 1963, Valium was the most prescribed drug in the US between 1969 and 1982. In 1978, nearly 2.3 billion doses of the tablets, stamped with their trademark ?V,? were taken.
Valium is primarily used for short-term relief for mild to moderate anxiety, but can also help treat symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal or epilepsy, and relieve muscle spasms.
Although he officially retired from lab work in 1973, Sternbach still goes to Roche every day, where he mentors scientists and works on his autobiography.