Researchers from the University of Illinois have developed a new device that acts as a 3-D printer and can work at the molecular level to assemble complex small molecules, just with a click of a mouse. Most of the modern medicines are composed of complex small molecules and this new technology has the potential to accelerate the development of new drugs. It can also be helpful in other arenas of chemical technology.
Chemistry professor and medical doctor Martin D. Burke, who was involved in the research, stated “We wanted to take a very complex process, chemical synthesis, and make it simple. Simplicity enables automation, which, in turn, can broadly enable discovery and bring the substantial power of making molecules to nonspecialists.” Small molecules, apart from being used in medicine, also find utility in important technologies like LEDs and solar cells. They are also used as “probes” in biology for the study of inner functions of cells. Development and testing of small molecules using traditional methods usually take years.
Burke explained “Up to now, the bottleneck has been synthesis. There are many areas where progress is being slowed, and many molecules that pharmaceutical companies aren’t even working on, because the barrier to synthesis is so high.” Burke and group created a new automated system which uses a “catch and release” method. With the help of instructions provided, the machine adds one block at a time and washes away any excess before the addition of the next block.
The research team has reported that their machine has, so far, created 14 different classes of small molecules, among which some are considered as difficult to manufacture. Miles Fabian of the National Institutes of Health reported “Dr. Burke’s research has yielded a significant advance that helps make complex small molecule synthesis more efficient, flexible and accessible. It is exciting to think about the impact that continued advances in these directions will have on synthetic chemistry and life science research.”
Currently the technology is being used by REVOLUTION Medicines, Inc., a company co-founded by Burke. Initially they are focusing on anti-fungal medications. Burke said “It is expected that the technology will similarly create new opportunities in other therapeutic areas as well, as the industrialization of the technology will help refine and broaden its scope and scalability. Perhaps most exciting, this work has opened up an actionable roadmap to a general and automated way to make most small molecules. If that goal can be realized, it will help shift the bottleneck from synthesis to function and bring the power of making small molecules to nonspecialists.”