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Credit: Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Credit: Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Research by Hong Kong scientists may bring safer and more affordable chiral medicine

According to recent press release, a research team from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has discovered a new way to produce chiral molecules in a more efficient and eco-friendly way.

Currently, over half of the approved drugs in use in the world are chiral, which treats a wide range of conditions including cardiovascular, respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.  

Last year, more than two thirds of the newly developing drugs are made of chiral molecules. Many chiral drugs are top sellers, including high-cholesterol medicine Lipitor, and antibiotic Amoxicillin. 

The market for chiral drugs is a fast growing one, with the market size jumping nearly four folds to around US$800 billion over the past decade and still growing.

However, the production of chiral drugs is difficult and costly as the production process is complicated and requires rare and expensive raw materials in general.

A team led by Prof Jianwei Sun, Associate Professor of the HKUST Department of Chemistry, discovered useful methods that could result in a more efficient and affordable production of the drugs.

“Chiral molecules contain subunits which are like twin brothers, they have extremely similar, mirror-like architecture but may exhibit distinct traits in our body. These ‘twin components’ are particularly hard to separate, and it is costly to get just the useful part out of the two, Chiral allenes represents an example of this type which were made by the very expensive chiral raw materials,” said Prof Sun.

However, Prof Sun’s team has discovered that chiral allenes can be produced through organic catalysis using racemic propargylic alcohols, which is cheap and available. The catalyst is also recyclable and reusable without having to create metal wastes.

According to Prof Sun, the new method is not only more economical and friendly to the environment, such green catalysis could also have profound impact in health care as drug companies may be able to create and develop chiral drugs in a cheaper and more sustainable way.

The findings were recently published in Nature Communications.

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