Safer drugs thanks to a new solution to a 150-year-old chemistry problem?
Just like gloves, molecules come in so-called left-handed and right-handed versions. Until now, however, it could be determined only with great difficulty whether a certain molecule is right-handed or left-handed. In medicine, this would be a big step forward because, for example, the unwanted side effects of drugs could be avoided. In the current issue of the journal Science, a team of researchers from Germany, Canada and Switzerland reports a new solution to a 150-year old problem.
The phenomenon of molecules with handedness is well known in yogurt: the bacterial cultures produce levo- or dextrorotatory lactic acid; of these two types, one form has a more favorable influence on intestinal flora than the other. In other substances, the second version is less harmless and causes damage: for example, while one form of penicillamine is effective against arthritis, its mirror image is more toxic.
“Enlargement” due to explosion
But how can we determine whether molecules are right- or left-handed? Until now, it was possible to directly determine handedness only in solid, crystalline substances using a special process in which the crystal structure was analyzed using X-rays. “The problem with this method is that it is not easy to crystallize every substance or to simply incorporate it into a suitable crystal. Therefore, we investigated a method in which the handedness can be determined directly in the gas phase” explains Prof. Robert Berger of the Clemens-Schöpf Institute at TU Darmstadt.
A variety of applications
“This method opens new perspectives for the investigation and analysis of handed molecules in physics, chemistry and pharmaceutics” predicts Dr. Markus Schöffler of the Institute of Nuclear Physics at Goethe University. For example, drugs could be produced in which only the molecules of the desired handedness are present. As a result, the dosage could be reduced. But other industries would also benefit: in carvone, a component of essential oils, for example, the handedness determines whether it smells like spearmint or caraway. In other substances, the flavor changes from bitter to sweet, for instance.
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