LEDYARD, Conn. -- Standing on a brightly lit stage, the picture from an overhead projector filling a screen behind him, Ken Koe
smiled and blinked, shifted his
weight and stole glances at a nearby exit as one speaker after another extolled his
accomplishments as a scientist.
A diminutive, bespectacled man, his
hair sprinkled with gray, Koe
would have preferred to be somewhere else.
But there he
was one day this spring, accepting an award from Pfizer Inc.'s
Asian Pacific American Group, which recognized him for his
role in developing Zoloft, the blockbuster drug used to treat depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"What am I going to do with this?"Koe
asked, pointing to a glass statuette inscribed with his
shrugged, hoisted the gift for the audience to see and just as quickly set it down on the podium, hoping to quiet the applause that bounced off the walls in an auditorium at Pfizer's Groton facility.At home
in Ledyard days later, Koe
would warm to the tale, flailing his
arms in the air, tracing equations on an imaginary chalkboard as he
recalled in an interview his
early years in Groton and the setbacks that preceded his
work on Zoloft, which was introduced to the public 12 years ago.Pfizer
has received hundreds of notes from aunts, grandfathers and wives praising the work of Koe
and a colleague, Willard Welch.
has been stopped in grocery stores and at church, hugged by strangers eager to show their appreciation for a drug that's enabled them to go to work, volunteer in their communities and spend time with their families - activities that otherwise would be all but impossible for them to enjoy.
Nevertheless, the retired Koe
, 79, said he
still finds it hard to fathom the impact of the anti-depressant that's been prescribed for more than 115 million people in the United States.
"I think of a white chemical in a bottle when I think of Zoloft," he
Zoloft, the brand name for the chemical sertraline hydrochloride, is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, a class of drugs that boosts the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.Serotonin acts as a "messenger," sending signals to the brain that help patients function.
In 1955, Koe
began work in Pfizer's Brooklyn, N.Y., lab as a chemist, developing antibiotics.Four years later, he
moved to the Groton facility, where he
began studying serotonin in animals, research that would help lay the groundwork for the development of Zoloft.Later, in the 1970s, Koe
searched for ways to treat pain without the use of opiates.
40 years at Pfizer
authored more than 100 articles and papers.
learned to review previous studies and to build on findings that had failed to lead to successful products.In his
early work with serotonin, for example, he
studied the chemical tametraline, which proved ineffective as an anti-depressant.
Tests showed the chemical functioned more as a stimulant, a use Pfizer
was not interested in pursuing.Although his
research had failed to yield the desired result, Koe
was convinced that the development of a viable anti-depressant was within reach.
"We knew we were looking for drugs for mental disorders, so those things are always in your mind," he
said."It's constant background noise."
That was 1978.In a memo to Pfizer's director of chemistry, Chuck Harbert, Koe hypothesized that one or two chlorine atoms could be introduced into a tametraline molecule to produce new molecules potent enough to boost the level of serotonin in the brain.
..."Usually, directors just ignore your memos, but Chuck followed up on it and assigned a scientist to it," Koe said.
Welch completed the work and Koe
performed tests in his lab to show that one of the new molecules, sertraline, acts as an SSRI.
"Making pharmaceutical drugs takes so much preparation," Koe
said."That light bulb going on takes time to cultivate."
Born in Astoria, Ore., and raised in Portland, Koe
was the oldest of three children.His
family lived in a moderate-size Asian community, where Koe
worked part time in a Chinese restaurant and attended language school in the evenings and on Saturdays.
"We were young and impressionable and our teachers were trying to instill a sense of Chinese, of your heritage," he
said."Some of it kind of rubbed off on me, but not until later."Koe earned his undergraduate degree at Reed College in Portland, which he attended on a scholarship, and got his master's at the University of Washington and his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology.He
wife, Jo Ann, shortly before starting work at Pfizer
.When the Koes moved to Ledyard in 1959, Jo Ann began a 25-year career as a teacher at the Juliet W. Long School
retired in 1995.Thinking back, he
would have stopped working earlier had he
wife of 40 years would die that same year.He
still lives in the same Woodridge Circle home that he
wife designed and where they raised their two daughters.The dwelling reflects Koe's
Plants in ceramic pots decorate tabletops and sections of carpeted floor.Calligraphy and drawings of birds and ethereal images - "typical Asian wall hangings," Koe
calls them - adorn the walls.
Miniature paper screens are splashed with spots of red and black.Classical music wafts from a small radio in the kitchen.And a blue and white "Zoloft" license plate hangs on a wall, spied between the spindles of a spiral staircase.Welch, the chemist who synthesized the molecule for Zoloft, had the license plate on his car at one time, but gave it to Koe as a gift.
continues to dabble in the scientific world.He
attends a conference each year as a consultant for Pfizer
, picking up new trends in the industry and reporting back to the drug company."We still work on things that Ken was active in 10 years ago," said Heym, the Pfizer vice president.