The importance of synthetic chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry

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Science  18 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6424, eaat0805
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0805

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Synthetic innovation in drug development

Chemical synthesis plays a key role in pharmaceutical research and development. Campos et al. review some of the advantages that have come from recent innovations in synthetic methods. In particular, they highlight small-molecule catalysts stimulated by visible light, enzymes engineered for versatility beyond their intrinsic function, and bio-orthogonal reactions to selectively modify proteins for conjugation. High-throughput techniques are also poised to accelerate methods optimization from small-scale discovery to large-scale production, and complementary machine-learning approaches are just coming into focus.

Science, this issue p. eaat0805

Structured Abstract


Over the past century, innovations in synthetic chemistry have greatly enabled the discovery and development of important life-changing medicines, improving the health of patients worldwide. In recent years, many pharmaceutical companies have chosen to reduce their R&D investment in chemistry, viewing synthetic chemistry more as a mature technology and less as a driver of innovation in drug discovery. Contrary to this opinion, we believe that excellence and innovation in synthetic chemistry continue to be critical to success in all phases of drug discovery and development. Moreover, recent developments in new synthetic methods, biocatalysis, chemoinformatics, and reaction miniaturization have the power to accelerate the pace and improve the quality of products in pharmaceutical research. Indeed, the application of new synthetic methods is rapidly expanding the realm of accessible chemical matter for modulating a broader array of biological targets, and there is a growing recognition that innovations in synthetic chemistry are changing the practice of drug discovery. We identify some of the most enabling recent advances in synthetic chemistry as well as opportunities that we believe are poised to transform the practice of drug discovery and development in the coming years.


Over the past century, innovations in synthetic methods have changed the way scientists think about designing and building molecules, enabling access to more expansive chemical space and to molecules possessing the essential biological activity needed in future investigational drugs. In order for the pharmaceutical industry to continue to produce breakthrough therapies that address global health needs, there remains a critical need for invention of synthetic transformations that can continue to drive new drug discovery. Toward this end, investment in research directed toward synthetic methods innovation, furthering the nexus of synthetic chemistry and biomolecules, and developing new technologies to accelerate methods discovery is essential. One powerful example of an emerging, transformative synthetic method is the recent discovery of photoredox catalysis, which allows one to harness the energy of visible light to accomplish synthetic transformations on drug-like molecules that were previously unachievable. Furthermore, recent breakthroughs in molecular biology, bioinformatics, and protein engineering are driving rapid identification of biocatalysts that possess desirable stability, unique activity, and exquisite selectivity needed to accelerate drug discovery. Recent developments in the merging fields of synthetic and biosynthetic chemistry have sought to harness these molecules in three distinct ways: as biocatalysts for novel and selective transformations, as conjugates through innovative bio-orthogonal chemistry, and in the development of improved therapeutic modalities. The development of high-throughput experimentation and analytical tools for chemistry has made it possible to execute more than 1500 simultaneous experiments at microgram scale in 1 day, enabling the rapid identification of suitable reaction conditions to explore chemical space and accelerate drug discovery. Finally, advances in computational chemistry and machine learning in the past decade are delivering real impact in areas such as new catalyst design, reaction prediction, and even new reaction discovery.


These advances position synthetic chemistry to continue to have an impact on the discovery and development of the next generation of medicines. Key unsolved problems in synthetic chemistry with potential implications for drug discovery include selective saturation and functionalization of heteroaromatics; concise synthesis of highly functionalized, constrained bicyclic amines; and C-H functionalization for the synthesis of α,α,α-trisubstituted amines. Other areas, such as site-selective modification of biomolecules and synthesis of noncanonical nucleosides, are emerging as opportunities of high potential impact. The concept of molecular editing, whereby one could selectively insert, delete, or exchange atoms in highly elaborated molecules, is an area of emerging interest. Continued investment in synthetic chemistry and chemical technologies through partnerships between the pharmaceutical industry and leading academic groups holds great promise to advance the field closer to a state where exploration of chemical space is unconstrained by synthetic complexity and only limited by the imagination of the chemist, enabling the discovery of the optimal chemical matter to treat disease faster than ever before.

Evolution of synthesis as a driver of innovation in drug discovery.

Past, present, and future advances in synthetic chemistry are poised to transform the practice of drug discovery and development.


Innovations in synthetic chemistry have enabled the discovery of many breakthrough therapies that have improved human health over the past century. In the face of increasing challenges in the pharmaceutical sector, continued innovation in chemistry is required to drive the discovery of the next wave of medicines. Novel synthetic methods not only unlock access to previously unattainable chemical matter, but also inspire new concepts as to how we design and build chemical matter. We identify some of the most important recent advances in synthetic chemistry as well as opportunities at the interface with partner disciplines that are poised to transform the practice of drug discovery and development.

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