On average, the pharmaceutical industry creates 100kg of waste for every 1kg of small-molecule drug synthesized. Making this process highly inefficient and creating a lot of toxic waste. Nitrogen-containing chemicals called primary amines are the sought-after chemicals from these processes, being used in the majority of all pharmaceuticals. Although this is far from ideal in our current climate, people need the life-saving medications produced through the process.
A research team from the University of Bath has come up with an ingenious idea to cut this waste down dramatically. Dr. Cresswell, the leader of the laboratory stated: “Making pharmaceuticals can be a wasteful process, with most of that waste being incinerated… People don’t really think about the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to carbon emissions, but some studies have calculated that big pharma emits more than the automotive industry.”
So how does it work?
The method uses a blue light-sensitive catalyst as the key player in the process. This molecule is able to capture energy from the light source, then channel it back into the reaction. The outcome? Dramatic acceleration of the drug-making process and the cutting out of many in-between steps. Scientists have been stumped trying to efficiently produce primary amines for decades, making the work published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) an urgently needed discovery.
Applying the method to industry
The method was tested by synthesizing Fingolimod, a widely popular drug for multiple sclerosis (MS), which had worldwide sales in 2020 of €3 billion. The drug was able to be produced successfully, showing the huge potential of this method to revolutionize the industry.
“We’re really excited that our group is the first in the world to achieve this breakthrough, and hope that it could in the future lead to much more sustainable pharmaceutical manufacturing processes,” said Cresswell. In the meantime, whilst we wait for the industry to catch up, the discovery and development of drugs can be made easier and more environmentally friendly using this method.
Source study: Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) – Photocatalytic Hydroaminoalkylation of Styrenes with Unprotected Primary Alkylamines