Exploring Chiral Chemistry - Pharmaceutical Technology

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PharmTech Europe

Exploring Chiral Chemistry
Chemocatalytic and biocatalytic approaches in asymmetric synthesis help provide a pathway for producing single-enantiomer drugs.

Pharmaceutical Technology
Volume 34, Issue 8, pp. 42-44

Chiral amines

CSR and sustainability forum
Researchers at Merck & Co. (Whitehouse Station, NJ) and Codexis (Redwood, CA,) a company specializing in biocatalysis, recently reported on their work on the biocatalytic asymmetric synthesis of chiral amines from ketones in the manufacture of sitagliptin, the active ingredient in Merck's antidiabetes drug Januvia. The biocatalytic process replaced a rhodium-catalyzed asymmetric enamine hydrogenation for the large-scale manufacture of sitagliptin. The researchers started from an (R)-selective transaminase that showed slight activity on a smaller truncated methyl ketone analog of the sitagliptin ketone. After creating this transaminase, which had marginal activity for the synthesis of the chiral amine, they further engineered the enzyme through directed evolution to optimize its use for large-scale manufacturing. The initial (R)-selective transaminase was a homologue of an enzyme from Arthrobacter sp., which previously was used for (R)-specific transamination of methyl ketones and small cyclic ketones. For the sitagliptin synthesis, the researchers generated a structural homology model of this transaminase and found that the enzyme would not bind to the prositagliptin ketone because of steric interference and potentially undesired interactions. The evolved transaminase was a successful biocatalyst that synthesized the chiral amines that previously were accessible only through resolution (5, 6).

The research was given the Greener Reaction Conditions Award by the US Environmental Protection Agency's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards in June 2010, an annual recognition of green-chemistry applications. The evolved transaminase had a compounded improvement in biocatalytic activity of more than 25,000-fold with high enantiopurity and no detection of the (S)-enantiomer of sitagliptin being formed. The enzymatic approach eliminated the high-pressure hydrogenation route, metal catalysts (i.e., rhodium and iron), and additional chiral purification steps in the rhodium-catalyzed asymmetric enamine hydrogenation for the large-scale manufacture of sitagliptin. The biocatalytic route improved productivity by 56%, increased yield by 10–13%, and reduced waste by 19%. Merck scaled up the process to pilot scale in 2009, according to information from EPA (6).

Diels–Alder reactions

Researchers recently reported on the use of computational design of a biocatalyst for stereoselective bimolecular Diels–Alder reactions. Diels–Alder is a cycloaddition reaction between a conjugated diene and a substituted alkene to form a substituted cyclohexene system. The researchers noted that no naturally occurring enzyme has been shown to catalyze an intermolecular Diels–Alder reaction, a function that could be valuable in increasing reaction rates and stereoselectivity. The researchers developed a de novo computational design and experimental characterization of enzymes catalyzing a bimolecular Diels–Alder reaction with high stereoselectivity and substrate specificity. The researchers studied the Diels–Alder reaction between 4-carboxybenzyl trans-1,3-butadiene-1-carbamate and N,N-dimethylacrylamide (7).

The researchers previously used Rosetta computational design methodology to design enzymes for catalyzing bond-breaking reactions, so their challenge was to develop a computational design for bond-forming reactions. Bimolecular bond-forming reactions, however, present a greater challenge because both substrates must be bound in the proper relative orientation for the reaction to accelerate and achieve stereoselectivity. Their work involved general acid–base catalysis and covalent catalysis. The Diels–Alder reaction provided the opportunity to alter the reaction rate by modulating molecular orbital energies (7).

Although the researchers succeeded in computationally designing an enzyme that catalyzes an enantio and diastereoselective intermolecular reaction, they noted the need to further improve their computational design methods. Only 2 of the 50 designed enzymes tested had measurable activity, and higher success rates and higher overall activities are desirable. However, their work holds promise. In addition to catalyzing new reactions with high substrate specificity and stereoselectivity, one of the potential advantages of the de novo enzyme design is that once an initial active enzyme is engineered, it can be modified to catalyze similar reactions with other substrates.

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. B. Shen, D. Makley, and J.N. Johnston, Nature 465 (7301), 1027–1032 (2010).

2. S. Borman, Chem. Eng. News 88 (26), 13 (2010).

3. C. Dahl, Chem. Eng. News 87 (42), 10 (2009).

4. E. Jacobsen et al., Nature 461 (7268), 968–970 (2009).

5. C.K. Savile et al., Science 329 (5989), 305–309 (2010).

6. US EPA, "The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards Program: Summary of 2010 Award Entries and Recipients" (EPA, Washington, DC, 2010).

7. J.B. Siegel et al., Science 329 (5989), 309–313 (2010).


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