A team of scientists from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientists have simplified the chemical synthesis of small molecules. They managed to eliminate a major problem that limits the exploration of a class of compounds and the results might be of tremendous potential for technology and medicine.
Scientists under the guidance of Martin Burke, an HHMI early career scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, used an automated process to synthesize 14 distinct classes of small molecules.
According to the scientists, the method could lead to the mass-production of thousands of useful molecules, all with the help of only one machine, which Burke’s team described as a “3D printer” for small molecules. They published their work in the issue of the journal Science from March 13, 2015.
Burke said that the approach traditionally used by chemists to synthesize small molecules is not only inaccessible to most researchers, but also time consuming.
“A lot of great medicines have not been discovered yet because of this synthesis bottleneck,” the scientist said.
“Our vision is that anybody could visit a website, choose the building blocks they want, instruct their assembly through the internet, and the small molecules will be synthesized and shipped,” he added, explaining that this scenario is still in the future, but that the blueprint of the plan has been drawn.
Scientists are constantly using and adapting small molecules, which are produced in abundance by nature, for practical uses. The small molecules are important biological research tools, while the vast majority of drugs are mostly considered to be small molecules. Technologies such as LEDs, solar cells or diagnostic tools and a wide-range of other technologies rely on these small molecules, which, according to Burke, had already a big impact on the world.
However, the scientist believes this is only the beginning in this area. ”We’ve barely scratched the surface of what they’re capable of doing. That’s because there’s a major synthesis standstill that precludes accessing all of their functional potential.”
Burke is convinced that the new way of manufacturing small molecules will be more efficient than the one which is currently used by chemists. “Every time you make a molecule you have to develop a unique strategy. That customization is slow,” he explained.
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