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New Chemistry Approach Promises Less Expensive Drugs

supported the work. "What's particularly exciting to me is the depth and rigor of the analysis that enabled this very creative breakthrough. Equally important, MacMillan has discovered new reactions that will streamline the synthesis of compounds that are relevant to human health."

Most drug molecules that pharmaceutical companies produce can exist in two different forms, which are mirror images of one another. Though both forms of an organic molecule -- known in the chemistry world as "enantiomers" -- have the same chemical formula, their effect on the body can differ dramatically.

"The two enantiomers are like keys with the same number of teeth, but which have different orientation," MacMillan said. "One key fits in with our biology very well, opening the correct doors in our body and helping us to heal. But the other key doesn't fit the same doors because its teeth are in opposing locations."

The two forms are indistinguishable by most modern lab tests, yet our bodies can tell the difference. Where one enantiomer might be the basis for a helpful drug, its mirror image might do nothing for the body, or even damage it.

"This was the problem in the 1960s with the drug phthalidomide," MacMillan said. "One of its enantiomers helped pregnant women overcome morning sickness. Its mirror image, however, caused birth defects."

In the vast majority of cases, the Food and Drug Administration now requires that drug companies create only the beneficial enantiomer during the manufacturing process. While this requirement keeps any of these helpful molecules' "evil twins" from reaching our systems, it also places heavy demands on the drug companies.

Building large quantities of a drug molecule often requires a catalyst, a substance that permits a chemical reaction to take place without itself being affected. Until recently, however most catalysts would create both enantiomers simultaneously, MacMillan said. I
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