The new technique uses metal surfaces as templates to make drug compoundsusing chiral molecules – molecules such as amino acids and sugars which can exist in mirror images, or enantiomers.
But though the “left-handed” and “right-handed” versions of the molecules contain the same components, often only one enantiomer can be used for a therapy.
Previously, researchers have had to use costly – and usually unattainable – catalysts to isolate the required version of the compound. However Stephen Driver, leading the team at Cambridge, says that a metal surface lacking mirror symmetry with a catalyst spread over it could be a solution to the problem.
He said: "Research into controlling chiral synthesis focuses mainly on using homogeneous catalysts, where the catalyst is in the same phase as the reactants and products, such as a liquid added to a liquid-phase reaction.
"However, this poses significant practical challenges in recovering the valuable catalyst material from the mixture.”
He added that using copper single-crystal surfaces, the team saw the otherwise spontaneous self-organisation of a chiral amino acid – alanine – form regular molecular arrangements.
The results suggest that certain surface coatings will form stable, ordered structures with one molecular enantiomer but not the other.
What’s in store?
The team are now looking to partners to help develop the technology from.
Driver told in-PharmaTechnologist: “This is fundamental research, published in the open literature. What we've done is to help establish "proof of principle".
“To develop a technology from it, I think that would come from a synergy between our research, input from catalytic chemists, and partnership with the pharma industry. This is the kind of interest we're hoping to stimulate.”
He stressed that the timescale of technology-to-market is critically dependent on getting interest from the pharma sector, but that he expects that to take upwards of three years.
As for the other applications of the innovation, Driver said: “The two biggest applications would be pharmaceutical manufacture, and bio-sensors that are sensitive to the chirality of the molecules they are detecting.
“The latter is based on the "lab-on-a-chip" concept, which could lead to portable hand-held detectors for biological substances – in this case, chiral molecules such as amino acids and sugars.”