Martin D. Burke, M.D., Ph.D., focused on the field he has named “molecular prosthetics,” after the small molecules that make up the ingredients in most drugs and the branch of medicine that involves artificial or prosthetic body parts.
“Artificial limbs replace the function of an arm or leg that’s missing due to injury,” Burke said. “Some diseases occur because proteins in the body are missing or not working properly. Molecular prosthetics envisions treating those diseases with medicines that replace the functions of the missing proteins.”
Burke described advances toward making molecular prosthetics a reality, including progress in developing a platform that would revolutionize the now-tedious processes of making or synthesizing the ingredients for those drugs. Burke, who is with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delivered the “Kavli Foundation Emerging Leader in Chemistry Lecture” at the meeting.
It was among almost 7,000 presentations on new advances in science and other topics on the ACS meeting agenda this week. Sponsored by the Kavli Foundation, the Emerging Leaders Lectures recognize the work of outstanding young chemical scientists. The presentations shine the spotlight on scientists younger than 40 years old and not more than 10 years removed from earning their doctorate degrees when nominated, and who have made exceptional achievements in scientific or engineering research.
Burke and his team already have gained fame for improvements in the Suzuki-Miyaura cross-coupling reaction of boronic acids. Despite the obscure name, that Nobel Prize-winning reaction is one of the most important and widely used tools in organic chemistry. It is the basis for the manufacture of ingredients for medicines, plastics, perfumes, herbicides and other products. Burke’s team developed special building blocks that can be used in the reaction to make some small molecules in days instead of months or years. The building blocks are available commercially, and drug companies are using them in the search for new medicines.
In the Kavli lecture, Burke described advances to simplify and speed up the synthesis of the small molecules needed for molecular prosthetics. More than 90 percent of today’s medicines use active ingredients that are small molecules. These substances can be processed into tablets and capsules and taken by mouth. They can dissolve in the gastrointestinal tract, go into the blood and travel to and work in almost every part of the body. The rest of today’s medicines are large molecules or “biologics” that like insulin cannot be taken by mouth.
“For molecular prosthetics to become a reality, we must overcome two major challenges,” Burke explained. “First, it can take months or even years to synthesize just one molecule. With our new platform, we could reduce that to a few days. The second challenge is to fundamentally understand the capacity for small molecules to operate like proteins in the context of living systems. That understanding is critical to being able to design the most effective molecules.”
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