Saving lives with chemical lego

It might be hard to believe, but scientists currently rely on one type of coral found in one place only—the Bahamas—as a source of the ingredients to make important anti-cancer and anti-malaria drugs.

It’s much easier to believe that the process of extracting this compound is labour-intensive, time-consuming and expensive.

But who needs the Bahamas when you have Canberra?

Scientists from the ANU Research School of Chemistry have developed a revolutionary new way to manufacture this natural chemical in the lab. And as a result, life-saving drugs for treating cancer and malaria can be made more cheaply and more readily available to those who need them.

“Ours is an empowering technique, allowing a smarter and faster way to make important substances,” says Dr Chris Newton.

The process began as blue-sky research, with chemists trying to work out how to make supposedly impossible molecules by running simulations on Australia’s most powerful supercomputer, located at the National Computational Infrastructure at ANU.

“We took small molecules and clipped them together like Lego,” says lead researcher Professor Michael Sherburn.

“The building blocks are carefully designed in such a way that the first reaction generates a product perfectly primed for the second. It’s quite magical. This means you can efficiently build large and complex molecules.”

The result of this “Lego” construction is manufactured pseudopterosin, a powerful anti-inflammatory and analgesic drug.

“The pseudopterosin synthesis is the tip of the iceberg,” Dr Newtown says. “We are well on the way to efficient syntheses of other important drugs.

“There is a potential for industrial-scale manufacture, too, which will take the pressure off species which are currently being harvested for drugs.”

The ANU Research School of Chemistry has an enviable reputation as a powerhouse of chemical research within Australia, attracting the best chemists from around the country and overseas. Supported by world-class equipment and laboratories, our scientists conduct pioneering research across the breadth of chemistry.

All of our researchers are involved in our undergraduate teaching program and supervising graduate students. Half of our 150 PhD students have travelled internationally to study with us.

Our research has had widespread international impact across the chemistry research community and has been applied within the agricultural, pharmaceutical and polymer industries.