Chemists develop 'almost magical' technique to move single atoms in molecule's core

Chemists often have to go through a laborious process to move single atoms in a molecule skeleton, but that is quickly changing.
John Loeffler
Chemical bonds
Chemical bonds

Charles Clegg/Flickr 

For more than a century, the process of creating and developing new molecules has revolved around chaining together a series of reliable chemical reactions to produce the compound you wanted.

But if you wanted to change an individual atom in the molecule's core, known as the molecular skeleton, you would often have to disassemble most of the molecule, if not all of it. This is a time-consuming process that has turned new drug discovery into a laborious process.

That has changed in recent years though, as Nature highlights. A new technique pioneered by University of Chicago chemist Mark Levin and others called skeletal editing is making it possible for individual atoms in a molecular skeleton to be swapped out or deleted without having to disassemble entire molecules.

This holds the promise of significantly faster drug discovery, as well as other chemical innovations.

The key is to use reliable chemical reactions to bypass atoms on the periphery of a molecule and insert the desired atom into the inside ring that makes up most biologically active molecules in chemistry. These are typically carbon-hydrogen pairs chained together in rings of five or six, but these carbon atoms can be replaced by oxygen and nitrogen to create new base skeletons for new compounds to be developed.

The way it is done now, you have to detach the periphery molecular groups through chemical reactions to 'expose' the skeleton atoms you want to replace, and then use more reactants to insert or remove individual atoms in the skeleton. Once an atom is removed, another reaction or series of reactions can be used to insert new atoms into the skeleton. The periphery molecular groups can then be added back to the molecular skeleton and tested for potential attributes and benefits (as well as potential harms).

As you can see, this is a very complicated process that has any number of potential pitfalls along the way. If you get halfway through the process and a reactant doesn't behave exactly as you need it to, you would likely have to start the process all over again. That's why the new skeletal editing techniques are so enticing for chemists.

There are still challenges, though, as the atom deletion and insertion techniques we have now are still a multistep process that can go awry, though it is easier to recover from and start again when that does happen.

The holy grail of this kind of chemistry though is a full atom-swapping technique that can replace atoms in the skeleton with a single reaction, which so far eludes Levin and others, but Levin says that this too might soon be possible.

“There’s still no general solution [for atom swapping]” he said. “But we have a couple of things cooking in my lab, which aren’t ready for prime time, that are exact answers to this challenge."

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