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New Catalyst for Synthesizing Chiral Molecules Selectively


Molecules in nature often have "twin" molecules that look identical. In particular, the twin molecules that look like mirror images to each other are called enantiomers. However, even though they have the same type and number of elements, these twin molecules exhibit completely different properties.

Professor Sukbok Chang and Dr. Yoonsu Park from the Department of Chemistry developed a new catalyst capable of selectively synthesizing only one of the two enantiomers. Using this catalyst, the have succeeded in manufacturing the chiral lactam, an essential ingredient in pharmaceuticals, from a hydrocarbon compound.

Enantiomerism or chirality is considered very important for drug development. Biomaterials, such as DNAs and proteins also have chiral properties, but they exhibit different physiological activities depending on the types of drugs. One type of the enantiomer could be useful while the other is toxic. Hence, the technology for selective synthesizing (i.e. asymmetric synthesis) is required, but it is still regarded as a great challenge faced by modern chemistry to date.

The researchers solved this problem by developing a new catalyst. Earlier they presented their research on developing an iridium catalyst that converts hydrocarbons into high value γ-lactam compounds, and published it in Science in March 2018. However, the developed catalyst still had a limitation that both types of enantiomers are obtained without selectivity.

In this study, they found that among dozens of other catalyst candidates, iridium catalysts with chiral diamine scaffolds were able to select the correct enantiomer with a selectivity of 99% or more. This novel catalyst can be used to synthesize the various chiral γ-lactam as required. A left-handed γ-lactam and a right-handed γ-lactam can be produced using a left-handed iridium catalyst and a right-handed iridium catalyst, respectively.

They analyzed the reason for the high selectivity through computational chemistry simulations. They identified that temporal hydrogen bonding occurred between the chiral diamine catalysts and the hydrocarbon compound during the reaction. As a result of the hydrogen bonding, the formation of the left-handed lactam was boosted.

With their new catalyst, they also succeeded in synthesizing chiral lactam compounds with different structures. By using inexpensive and readily available feedstock hydrocarbons, the researchers produced a group of chiral lactams in different shapes. As their chirality and diverse structures enable lactams to function as an active compound in the body for antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, or anti-tumoral functions, this study may facilitate the development of potential drugs in a more efficient and cheaper way.

Professor Chang said, "We hope that our research on selectively producing core units of effective drugs will lead to developing new drugs that demonstrate fewer side-effects and higher efficacy. There are also economic advantages of this research because it uses hydrocarbon compounds, which can be abundantly found in nature, to produce high-value raw materials.

» Original publication

Source: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)