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Automated chemistry could build better drugs fast and cheap

Technology-driven systems may transform chemical synthesis

1:43pm, August 12, 2015
Automated chemistry apparatus

CHEMISTRY ON DEMAND  This mess of tubing and pumps snaps together molecules from chemical building blocks. Developer Martin Burke imagines the automated system freeing up chemists’ time to dream up the next blockbuster drug.

Mother Nature is a lazy chemist. Occasionally, she produces an organic molecule that’s a winning drug. But more often, a nature-made chemical’s medicinal powers are coupled with flaws, such as brutal side effects. Until recently, upping the safety of those drugs by retooling their parts was a lot like assembling Ikea furniture.

Take amphotericin B, a lifesaving but toxic antifungal medicine. To build a better version, chemists would need to translate a series of tauntingly simple stick-figure diagrams into actual chemistry, coming up with chemical reactions to attach and rejigger dozens of atomic parts. This hands-on approach could take more than 100 steps.

Enter automation. A new technique can snap a potential new drug together in just a few steps. The system is like chemistry’s Easy-Bake oven: assembling premade ingredients and serving up custom small molecules at the push of a button.


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