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Amping up the pharma lab: Drug companies explore the potential of electrochemistry

November 5, 2019
Life sciences

Synthetic organic chemists are accustomed to pushing electrons around. They use reducing reagents to force electrons into molecules and oxidizing reagents to strip them out. But using electrons on their own as a tool to synthesize molecules—electrochemistry, in other words—has been a niche of just a few.

That’s starting to change.

Over the past few years, interest in electrochemistry for organic synthesis has surged, thanks to a small but growing cadre of synthetic organic chemists. Unable to resist a pun, they all say the same thing: the technique has a lot of potential.

Pharmaceutical companies hope to tap into that potential, giving medicinal and process chemists tools for making both drug candidates and approved drugs.

For medicinal chemists, who design compounds for preclinical testing, the technique offers the ability to change one part of a complex molecule without affecting the rest of its structure. It can also let them construct molecules that are difficult or impossible to make any other way. For process chemists, who scale up syntheses of promising molecules for preclinical and clinical studies, the method can cut down on waste and offer improvements in cost, safety, and sustainability.

Yet not all drug industry chemists are charged up about electrochemistry. Some medicinal chemists are skeptical that it offers any new reactivity, while process chemists lament the lack of off-the-shelf equipment that would allow them to practice it at kilogram scale.

Synthetic organic electrochemistry typically happens at an electrode: a single electron gets pushed into a molecule or taken away, weakening certain bonds so that the compound becomes reactive. The technique is neither new nor an academic curiosity. Its discovery predates the light bulb by decades. Today, fine chemical companies use it to churn out compounds like the fragrance lysmeral at the metric-ton scale. Even so, chemists in pharma have only in the past 5 years started to bring it into their labs.

Learning to use electrochemistry for organic synthesis can be a burden, says Shannon Stahl, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has worked in the field for more than a decade. “You have to learn everything the traditional synthetic chemist has to learn, and you have to learn all the mechanics, instrumentation, and analysis that goes into electrochemistry,” he says. “It creates a barrier to this field.”

> Read the full article on the C&EN website

By Bethany Halford

Source: Chemical and Engineering News

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