Canberra chemists unlock new way of making drugs
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Canberra chemists unlock new way of making drugs

Canberra chemists have invented new way of manufacturing natural chemicals - the equivalent of allowing you to travel from Sydney to London in 12 hours instead of 24 hours. Natasha Boddy reports.

Chemists in Canberra have discovered a new way of manufacturing natural chemicals in a breakthrough that could lead to easier and cheaper ways to mass produce rare drugs.

Professor Mick Sherburn from the Australian National University's Research School of Chemistry and PhD students Chris Newton and Sam Drew demonstrated the power of the breakthrough by making pseudopterosin, a strong anti-inflammatory and analgesic drug with potential to treat cancer and malaria.

The molecule is currently found only in tiny quantities in a rare coral found off the coast of the Bahamas.

"What we've done is made around 1000 times the quantity that's accessible from the sea whip without even really trying," Professor Sherburn.

"In every respect, the one we make in a laboratory is exactly the same chemical substance that's produced by the sea whip."

Professor Sherburn said the new method could also pave the way for a more environmentally friendly way of manufacturing natural chemicals.

"Obviously we don't want to be putting on our scuba diving gear these days and just willy nilly removing plants and animals from their environment... and extracting them for their chemicals because they might do us some good," he said.

"What we want to be able to do is to to access these in a much more ecologically acceptable manner."

Professor Sherburn said there were also "countless other substances that could be synthesised" by using the new method, meaning the breakthrough could lead to more efficient and cheaper ways of making rare drugs in large quantities.

"This was certainly not a study that was in any way limited just to the one specific outcome. It's almost like a new paradigm, a new philosophy in how to make molecules in a very efficient way," he said.

"It should be a very general method. We've invented a process called a domino chemical reaction. Normally you do a chemical reaction and you'll form one new chemical bond at a time. Our method forms lots of chemical bonds in a similar way to lining up dominos: the first bond formation sets things up for the second, and the third, and so forth," he said.

"It's an extremely efficient way to form lots of bonds in a short space of time and with the minimum impact upon the environment and the maximum benefit."

Professor Sherburn and his team are already working on making other compounds with proven medicinal value.

"They will be coming out over the next year or two. Our goal is to develop the definitive way to make these important compounds," he said.

"Our pseudopterosin synthesis is much more than an incremental improvement. The preparation of any chemical substance is like a journey and, in a chemistry sense, we've invented a new mode of transport that allows you to travel from Sydney to London in 12 hours instead of 24 hours."

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