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).
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
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, email@example.com
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. EPA, "The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards Program: Summary of 2010 Award Entries and Recipients" (EPA, Washington,
7. J.B. Siegel et al., Science
329 (5989), 309–313 (2010).