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March 17, 2011 Volume 32, No. 24

MU chemist: New technique could change how drugs are made


Pressurizing crystal forms saves time, energy

A prolific University of Missouri chemist has discovered a quicker and easier method for pharmaceutical companies to make certain drugs.

Jerry Atwood, Curator’s Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry in the MU College of Arts and Science, recently published a paper that reports that highly pressurized carbon dioxide at room temperature could replace the time consuming and expensive methods currently used to manufacture certain pharmaceutical drugs.

In the article, “A New Strategy of Transforming Pharmaceutical Crystal Forms,” published in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Atwood and a team of researchers explain how manufacturers of popular drugs such as the antibiotic clarithromycin and lansoprazole, an acid reflux treatment, could benefit from this process.

To develop drugs that are safe, manufacturers must make specific crystals that constitute the eventual compound. Depending on the drug, current methods may include high-temperature heating, raw material altering, washing, filtering and intensive drying. Atwood and his team have found they can reach the same goal by pressurizing the first crystal form with carbon dioxide to convert it directly to the desired crystal form in as little as four hours at room temperature.

Atwood hopes his research will gain traction and eventually land in the marketplace.

“If it does, it could mean better pharmaceuticals, more effective treatments and ultimately a lower price,” Atwood says. “If I can come up with a way to prepare material in a more efficient way, it will save time and energy.”

Atwood points out that cost savings may be minimal to consumers, however, as drug companies set prices to recoup billion dollar investments in multiple-drug trials. Only one of every five clinically tested drugs makes it to market, Atwood says, and the companies must make a profit on the drug that becomes widely used.

Atwood, who has published 663 papers in his career, is one of the top 50 chemists in the world in terms of citations. He is working to develop nanocapusles that could be used as chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients. Current cancer drugs are delivered to the blood stream and cause extreme side effects. The goal of Atwood’s nanocapsules is to deliver the drug directly to the tumor therefore eliminating the side effects.

“This is exciting science,” he says. “I am always looking for the better angle and I want our team at MU to get to this important goal first.”

 “When I lecture a group of world-class scientists,” he continues, “I tell them the good news and the bad news. The bad news is that we must make a major breakthrough like curing a disease. If we can do that, then our field of chemistry will flourish, and we will pay society back for their investment. If we fail to make the breakthrough, society won’t support what we are doing forever. The good news is that just one of our research groups has to do it, so the pressure is on all or us, not just on you or me.”