Researchers report an efficient, cost-effective approach to artemisinin. Key to the success of the strategy was the development of mild, complexity-building reaction cascades that allowed the use of readily available, affordable cyclohexenone as the key starting material.
"In 2005, the WHO claimed that the structure of artemisinin was too complex for cost-effective synthesis," said IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences chemistry professor Silas Cook. "We saw this as a natural challenge to the creativity and tenacity of organic chemists."
Published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society as 'A Concise Synthesis of Artemisinin' [see below], Cook and postdoctoral co-author Chunyin Zhu report a succinct five-part process beginning with inexpensive cyclohexenone, an ideal feedstock available on metric-ton scale. Subsequent chemistry highlights several new reactions developed in the Cook group to enable this short, low-cost synthesis.
The result was the production of fully synthetic artemisinin on gram scale, greater than all previous total syntheses combined.
"The key to the ultimate success of synthetic artemisinin will be the large-scale production of the drug," Cook said. "As such, we had to completely rethink what qualified as suitable starting materials for this synthesis and invent new chemistry." The result was the use of readily available commodity chemicals in a process that was shorter than any other artemisinin total synthesis ever conducted.
The next challenge will be to move from gram-scale to kilogram-scale production, a process Cook may or may not be involved with.
"There is still work to be done. And we'd love to do it here, but the project has yet to attract outside funding," he said. "This is still in an experimental phase until you can scale up. We patented it, so the intellectual property rights are in place."
Cook came to IU in 2008 following post-doctoral work with Eric Jacobsen, developer of the Jacobsen expoxidation, at Harvard University, and after finishing a Ph.D. with Columbia University's Samuel J. Danishefsky, where the lab focuses on the synthesis of antitumor and anti-infective natural products and fully synthetic vaccines.