Glasgow team creates “chemputer” system that allows digitisation of chemistry and opens door to on-demand production of pharmaceuticals
The system, named by research leader Lee Cronin, Regius professor of chemistry at the University of Glasgow, uses downloadable blueprints to easily and reliably synthesise drug molecules. Described in Science, this represents “a key step in the digitisation of chemistry, and will allow the universal assembly of complex molecules on demand,” Cronin claimed.
Cronin has been working on the chemputer concept and the software system which runs the chemical recipes and directs the synthesis process, known as a chempiler, for some years. The Science paper represents a major step in perfecting the idea, he said. A key part of the project was developing a new universal and interoperable standards for writing and sharing chemical recipes, which involved creating a general abstraction for chemistry.
This has proved difficult in the past because chemistry tends to operate like a language with irregular verbs and exceptions to rules.This is further complicated by a tendency for syntheses to be incompletely documented and, as they tend to be very manual processes when first developed, this means that complex chemicals are generally only available when the synthesis has been transformed into an industrial process and automated at relatively large-scale, which puts clinicians very much at the mercy of large pharmaceutical companies and complex logistical chains for their medical supplies.
The system consists of an automated series of modular reaction vessels, linked to a desktop computer that controls pumps and valves to draw liquid chemical reactants into, through and out of the vessels. The essential modules consist of a reaction chamber, a filtration system equipped with a jacket that allows it to be cooled or heated, a liquid-liquid separation vessel and a solvent evaporator. In tests, the researchers synthesised three very different medicine active ingredients, for the sleeping drug Nytol (an antihistamine that causes drowsiness), the anticonvulsants medication rufinamide and the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra all using the same apparatus and merely changing the software and input chemicals.
“Making recipes for drugs available online, and synthesisable via a compact chemputer system, could allow medical professionals in remote parts of the world to create life-saving drugs as and when they are required, for example, or researchers to easily share newly-developed drug molecules for innovative treatments.,” Cronin said. “The potential applications are enormous, and we’re very excited to be leading on this revolutionary new approach to organic chemistry.”
Sharing recipes online would be a similar process to sharing music via systems like iTunes or Spotify and would mean that synthesis could be carried out on demand using a kit standardised of easily available starting materials in a rapid, efficient and safe manner, which would mean that medicines which would otherwise only be available via lengthy worldwide delivery programs could be made where and when they were needed. It would also mean that clinics would not need to be equipped with equipment to safely store medicines and there would be no need to stockpile and update supplies of substances that might otherwise degrade over time. This is often the case with vaccines, for example, and delays in supply of these are often a factor in the spread of infectious diseases in poorer and remote regions.