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Interviews

From sparkling lemonade to life changing drugs: Boehringer Ingelheim's rise in respiratory medicine

Boehringer Ingelheim's (BI) first steps in respiratory medicine started way back in 1885. Back then, Albert Boehringer, a German chemist, decided to buy a tartar factory in Ingelheim am Rhein. He started to produce tartar and other tartaric acid salts, which were used primarily in the food industry. However, during the 20th century, the company started to move towards products that could be used in the upcoming pharmaceutical industry.

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At first, the then called C.H Boehringer Sohn started to sell base products to pharmacies. Later, in 1921, BI had its first breakthrough in respiratory medicine: the company purified the alkaloid 'lobeline' and formulated it as a drug, which was used with great success to stimulate respiration, for instance in patients suffering from asthma. Notwithstanding, shortly after Albert’s sons took over the firm’s management, another respiratory disease treatment was launched in 1941, opening new possibilities for the treatment of asthma. During subsequent decades, other prescription and non-prescription medicines focusing on various respiratory diseases were continuously developed. For instance, in 2002, BI launched a life changing drug targeting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In line with the company’s focus on respiratory conditions, BI acquired a microtechnology company in 2003, creating a new way of generating therapeutic aerosols to help patients with respiratory conditions.

Although this ‘family business’ now employs about 50.000 people worldwide, its mission remains unchanged: to develop breakthrough medicines and health care solutions in areas of unmet medical need – to create value through innovation. This is made clear for Respiratory Medicine in 2013 to 2015, with the approval and launch of several novel medicines and indications, including rare diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).

The excitement of research                                          

Dr. Bernd Disse worked as head of the research and later clinical development departments in BI's Respiratory Medicine from the 1980's to the 2010's, making him an excellent eyewitness of the innovations of the last thirty years. 'I graduated in chemistry and medicine', Disse says, 'and I started to work for BI in 1980. I wanted to combine my passion for chemistry and medicine, and the respiratory research and medicine branch of BI turned out to be an excellent place for that.'

According to Disse, in the 1980's, BI was a leading company in respiratory disease in Germany. 'I was very excited about the devotion to respiratory medicine I found in BI', Disse says. 'You couldn't find that devotion anywhere else in Germany. A similar devotion could maybe only be found in other European countries, or in the United States. BI has a long term commitment to respiratory disease drug research and development. That kind of commitment creates a very stable environment, which is definitely needed for success.'

How would an expert predict the future research directions in this important field?

'Concerning progressive lung fibrosis, I think that the lung involvement in some patients with auto-immune connective tissue diseases have been somewhat ignored in clinical practice. Maybe this was the case because there is no effective treatment for the lung involvement. Take for example a disease like rheumatoid arthritis. About ten percent of these patients have serious progressive pulmonary fibrosis and they may even die from it. The good question is: would this fibrosis respond to already existing treatments for IPF? This is now investigated in a set of large studies, including patients with systemic diseases who have progressive pulmonary fibrosis.' Apart from progress in the field of pulmonary fibrosis, Disse also foresees development in other respiratory areas, such as cystic fibrosis, COPD or asthma.

In the end, this approach to doing research might not differ all that much from the way Albert Boehringer started doing research in his tartar factory more than 130 years ago. 'It's all about the attitude', Disse concludes. 'I was always very happy in the BI environment. It was a scientific and open environment and both ethical and medical considerations were eventually prevailing. I hope very much that Boehringer Ingelheim can continue to provide medical innovation to patients suffering from lung diseases.' One can imagine that if Albert Boehringer were still alive today, he would give a little nod of approval.
 


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