BC Chemists’ Catalyst Discovery Promises Improvements in Drug Production
Boston College chemists have discovered a substance that will make it possible for scientists to produce scores of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in a faster, less expensive way.
In a letter published in the Sept. 7 issue of the journal Nature, a team led by Patricia and Joseph T. Vanderslice Professor of Chemistry Amir Hoveyda and Professor Marc Snapper of the Boston College Chemistry Department said they had found a firstof-its-kind catalyst that will eliminate several steps from the process of synthesizing certain molecules.
"Our new catalyst will significantly improve the efficiency with which biologically and medicinally active molecules can be prepared," said Prof. Hoveyda, who is also chair of the department.
"Such a catalyst, by shortening synthesis routes, will significantly lower cost and reduce the waste generated in laboratory syntheses."
The discovery is based on the concept of chirality, which refers to the two handed nature of certain molecules.
Many important chemical compounds that exist in nature or are created by laboratory scientists come in two, mirror-image forms - a "left" and a "right" hand.
Some drugs comprise chiral molecules, which can pose a problem: often, one hand, or enantiomer, of the drug molecule can be beneficial to a patient’s health, while the other may be harmful.
Because of this, it is important for anyone who wants to prepare drugs, especially in large quantities, to be able to synthesize single-handed compounds with high selectivity; ideally, none of the opposite hand should be around.
This way, the unfavorable properties of one enantiomer are eliminated without diluting the desired enantiomer’s benefits.
What the Hoveyda-Snapper team discovered can be referred to as a "silylation catalyst" - a molecule that attaches, with extremely high selectivity, a silicon atom to an alcohol group so that only one enantiomer is formed.
"What makes this discovery enormously significant is that silyation is already one of the most useful ways - if not the most effective way - to protect an alcohol from undesired reactions while a molecule is being modified somewhere else," Prof. Snapper said.