Optimizing Small-Molecule Synthesis - Pharmaceutical Technology

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Optimizing Small-Molecule Synthesis
Catalysis for olefin metathesis and aldol reactions and synthetic routes to natural products are some recent gains.

Pharmaceutical Technology
Volume 33, Issue 1, pp. 58-61

Aldol reactions

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley developed an enzyme-like polymer catalyst consisting of a hyperbranched polyethyleneimine derivative and proline that eliminates self-aldol reactions by suppressing an irreversible aldol pathway. Self-aldol reactions with enolizable aldehydes in reactions such as cross-aldol processes represent a challenge to achieving desired chemoselectivity (4).

The research team, led by Jean M.J. Frecht, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering in the Department of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that the usual approach for suppressing self-aldol reactions is to use large excesses of one reaction component. Initial research suggests that using the polymer catalyst allows the aldol reaction to proceed selectively in water. The polymer catalyst system or a modified version has the potential, for example, to prepare a, -unsaturated ketones using cross ketone/aldehyde reactions without the need for excess substrate (4).

Biomimetic synthesis

Natural products can offer a pool of potential drug candidates, but the lack of a synthetic or semisynthetic route to making a compound of interest can limit the applications in drug development. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of British Columbia, and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich, recently reported using biomimetic synthesis to make exiguamine A and B. Exiguamine A and B are natural products derived from a marine sponge found in the waters of Papua New Guinea. They inhibit the action of indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase (IDO), an enzyme that protects the fetus during pregnancy against an immune response of the mother, and are being explored in cancer research.

"Ultimately, IDO lends the cancer cells immunotolerance," said Dirk Trauner, professor for chemical biology and genetics at LMU, in an Aug. 4, 2008 LMU press release. "This enzyme [IDO] can do so by breaking down the amino acid tryptophan, which is essential for T-cells. But these immune cells are required by the body's immune response for destroying tumors. As such, IDO inhibitors, and our substances [exiguamine A and B] are only two of many such agents [that] could be employed in cancer therapy in [the] future for a large number tumors."

As the name implies, biomimetic synthesis parallels a synthetic or chemical route of a biological process. The approach is considered most successful when biosynthetic intermediates are set up to undergo reaction cascades. An example is pericyclic cascades or cationic polyene cyclizations that mimic the assembly of terpenoids (5).

Trauner and his team focused on the catecholamine cascade for synthesizing exiguamine A and later isolating exiguamine B. Catecholamines are intermediates that have potential in synthetic reactions because they may be readily oxidized to highly reactive electrophilic ortho-quinone and have a nucleophilic amine as an additional source of reactivity. The biosynthesis of exiguamine A involved a tautomerization of an ortho-quinone to a vinyl ortho-quinone methide, which was the key step of the synthesis, followed by oxa-6p electrocyclization (5).

Trauner is exploring other organic reactions that can be used in natural product research. "We have achieved the first asymmetrical Nazarov cyclizations and the first catalytic 6p electrocyclizations," he said in the LMU release. "These are important methods for synthesizing five and six-member rings that play a central role in the chemistry of natural products. I am convinced that the large majority of natural products are still unknown and that a multitude of interesting discoveries regarding their chemistry and biology are awaiting us."

Patricia Van Arnum is a senior editor at Pharmaceutical Technology, 485 Route One South, Bldg F, First Floor, Iselin, NJ 08830 tel. 732.346.3072,


1. X. Bei, D.P. Allen, and R. Pederson, "Highly Efficient Olefin Metathesis," Pharm.Technol. 32 (9), Pharmaceutical Ingredients Suppl., s18–s23 (2008).

2. A.H. Hoveyda et al., "Highly Efficient Molybdenum-Based Catalysts for Enantioselective Alkene Metathesis," Nature 456 (7224), 933–937 (2008).

3. B. Halford, " A Catalyst With Fluxionality," Chem. Eng. News. 86 (47), 11 (2008).

4. J. Frecht, "Control of Aldol Reaction Pathways of Enolizable Aldehydes in an Aqueous Environment with a Hyperbranched Polymeric Catalyst," J. Amer. Chem. Soc. 130 (51), 17287–17289 (2008).

5. D. Trauner et al., "Biomimetic Synthesis of the IDO Inhibitors Exiguamine A and B," Nature Chem. Bio, online, DOI:10.1038/nchembio.107, Aug. 1, 2008.


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