From four steps to one

25 April 2018

“I want my chemistry to be used.” Syuzanna Harutyunyan has received a Vici to simplify chemical processes that are very useful in the pharmaceutical world.

Photo: Hans Dirksen

Prof. Harutyunyan, an associate professor of synthetic organic chemistry at Groningen, emphatically points out that “My chemistry has to be readily usable”. That is the lesson she learned when she swapped academia for the world of business. For two years, she worked as a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry. There, she discovered that the latest molecules being studied at universities were not a priority for medicine manufacturers. “There is a yawning gap between the worlds of university chemistry and commercial chemistry. The production methods used in the university world are often just too complex or too labour intensive to be of practical use in industry,” says Syuzanna Harutyunyan. “When you need to produce substances on a larger scale, you really don’t want to do that at extremely low temperatures, or in a nitrogen atmosphere. Nor do you want a process that takes hours, and that requires all kinds of complicated, intermediate chemical steps.” Prof. Harutyunyan returned to the world of academia because she missed the freedom to follow her own interests. “But I will never forget this valuable lesson. I want my chemistry to be used, so ‘operational simplicity’ is my motto from now on.”

Accordingly, she is now working on ways to simplify the production methods used to create substances needed in the manufacture of medicines. “It’s fair to say that we chemists can now make just about anything we like. The only issue is how efficiently we can do that.” The pharmaceutical industry works with highly complex molecules, so the recipes for their production are often very lengthy. Indeed, some potentially useful substances have such long and convoluted recipes that manufacturing them is not an option. “To cut a long story short, you could say that I try to cut four-step chemical processes down to a single step”, says Syuzanna Harutyunyan. “At the same time, I try to find out whether this new method could be used to make other substances.” Her goal is to transform the way industry develops medicines. She wants them to focus more on which substances are useful, and less on which ones are easy to make.

But there were no wild celebrations when she heard about her Vici. Amused, she admits “I still haven’t got the hang of that ... celebrating things, I mean”. But she has made one resolution – to throw a party, to celebrate this exceptionally good year. Within a short space of time, two of her grant proposals (for an ERC Consolidator and a Vici) were both approved, which was more than she had dared to hope.

The main thrust of her research involves Lewis acids, compounds that can accept an electron pair. Prof. Harutyunyan uses them to activate inactive molecules or to actually block reactive groups. “The holy grail in our field is to get the least reactive part of a molecule to take part in a reaction. Having conducted endless trials with Lewis acids, our group now has a good understanding of what you can and cannot do with these substances.” She plans to catalogue that knowledge, so that other chemists can also benefit from it. “These days, people still tend to focus only on a Lewis acid’s strength. Yet that, by itself, has insufficient predictive value. There is also the question of chemical affinity, or the ‘attraction’ between molecules.”

Syuzanna Harutyunyan also wants to use her Vici grant to see if she can combine the potential of Lewis acids with copper catalysis. Here, too, her priority is more efficient chemistry. “Getting the Vici means I can now push ahead with this. It will enable me to expand my lab and hire additional staff.”

Source: NWO