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Process to customize molecules does double duty: Lab draws on nature to create flexible precursors for drug and materials design

Inspired by your liver and activated by light, a chemical process developed in labs at Rice University and in China shows promise for drug design and the development of unique materials.

Researchers led by Rice chemist Julian West and Xi-Sheng Wang at the University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, are reporting their successful catalytic process to simultaneously add two distinct functional groups to single alkenes, organic molecules drawn from petrochemicals that contain at least one carbon-carbon double bond combined with hydrogen atoms.

Better yet, they say, is that these alkenes are “unactivated” — that is, they lack reactive atoms near the double bond — and until now, have proven challenging to enhance.

The chemical pathway detailed in the Journal of the American Chemical Society could simplify the creation of a library of precursors for the pharmaceutical industry and enhance the manufacture of polymers.

West, whose lab designs synthetic chemistry processes, said the initial inspiration came from an enzyme, cytochrome P450, the liver uses to eliminate potentially harmful molecules.

“These enzymes are sort of buzzsaws that grind up molecules before they can get you into trouble,” he said. “They do this through an interesting mechanism called radical rebound.”

West said P450 finds carbon-hydrogen bonds and removes the hydrogen, leaving a carbon-centered radical that includes an unpaired electron.

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