The Drug Synthesis Revolution

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The Drug Synthesis Revolution

A diverse group of scientists is unlocking new ways to make antibiotics and drugs to treat cancer, and these breakthroughs will revolutionize the field of medicine.  For example, at UCLA, researchers are synthesizing new compounds using the bacterium E. coli, whose fast growth and simple morphology make developing the drugs far easier than with conventional methods of synthesis.  As reported recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,1 the scientists manipulated the metabolism of the bacterium using enzymes in order to turn it into a miniature factory for making drugs. 

Related breakthroughs are taking place at academic institutions across the globe, and they promise to deliver entire new families of drugs.  For example, a consortium of researchers supported by the European Union is engaged in a four-year project to produce pharmaceuticals using plant cells as drug factories.

By controlling a plant cell's metabolism, it can be stimulated to create novel compounds with therapeutic uses, according to a report from the Technical Research Centre of Finland.2  Those compounds are so complicated to manufacture in traditional ways that they are prohibitively expensive.  So, even though they've proven useful in treating cancer and malaria, their use, until now, has been very restricted because of the cost and difficulty of producing them.

Meanwhile, scientists at the State University of New York at Buffalo published a report in Nature3 describing a new method of chemical synthesis using catalysts to produce novel pharmaceutical compounds with wide-ranging therapeutic uses.  This research promises to improve the discovery of new drugs as well as their production in large quantities.  For example, one gram of a catalyst will typically produce 25 pounds of these new drugs.  They are being used to treat a broad spectrum of diseases, including cancer, depression, and even addictive problems.  One of those new drugs is already in clinical trials. 

According to another recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,4 researchers at Arizona State University are using nanotechnology to turn the internal machinery of the body's own cells into drug factoriesEvery cell in the body has machinery that works like a copier, taking apart DNA and reproducing copies of it or producing strings of proteins from it.  The Arizona State scientists are now recruiting that machinery to produce complex proteins and DNA nanostructures for therapeutic applications...

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