Field Focus: Making Chemistry Greener

Bob Lees
NIGMS’ Bob Lees answers questions about green chemistry. Credit: National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Chemists funded by NIGMS are working to develop “greener” processes for discovering, developing and manufacturing medicines and other molecules with therapeutic potential, as well as compounds used in biomedical research. One of our scientific experts, organic chemist Bob Lees, recently spoke to me about some of these efforts.

What is green chemistry?

Green chemistry is the design of chemical processes and products that are more environmentally friendly. Among the 12 guiding principles of green chemistry Exit icon are producing less waste, including fewer toxic byproducts; using more sustainable (renewable) or biodegradable materials; and saving energy.

Why is green chemistry important to human health?

Green chemistry benefits our health in more than one way. It’s useful for making medicines and for developing imaging tools and probes that scientists use to study a wide range of medically important biological processes. It also benefits our health—and the planet’s—by producing less waste and consuming less energy.

What are some examples of green chemistry research that NIGMS supports?

One researcher developed a method to safely and efficiently use oxygen instead of hazardous chemicals in a step commonly used to make medicines. He also devised a way to make water the only byproduct of those reactions.

Another investigator conceived a better and more cost-effective method for producing a leading statin drug for treating high cholesterol. The traditional, multistep process for making this drug was inefficient and used large amounts of hazardous reagents. The new method uses an engineered enzyme to circumvent several chemical steps. (Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions in the human body and in other organisms.)

What are some of the scientific challenges and frontiers in green chemistry research?

A key challenge—and a frontier—is improving catalytic reactions. Chemists use catalysts to speed up reactions, but these catalysts are often metals that are toxic as well as rare and expensive. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have to remove metals and other impurities from a drug once the reaction that produced it is complete. It’s important to work on figuring out ways to carry out catalytic reactions with much smaller amounts of metals, or with less toxic metals, as well as with more common metals that are easier to obtain and thus more sustainable. Nonmetallic catalysts also are an option and are an area of much research activity lately.

Hands
Many laboratory reactions produce two, “mirror-image” products: “left-” and “right”-handed versions of a molecule that have the same atoms and atom-to-atom connections but different spatial orientations and more importantly, different biological properties. Scientists are working to develop reactions that yield just one version. Credit: Stock image.

It’s also important to develop catalytic reactions that are more selective, meaning they produce only (or mainly) the compound with the desired properties. Right now, some of these reactions produce two or more chemical compounds that have the same atoms and the same atom-to-atom connections, but with the atoms positioned differently in three-dimensional space, resulting in different biological properties. Creating reactions that are more selective would eliminate the need for additional chemical steps to purify the desired compound from a mixture of products and avoid the waste associated with producing and then removing the undesired compound.

Another area for future work involves adapting enzymes that exist in nature, or even inventing enzymes from scratch, to serve as catalysts for carrying out large-scale chemical reactions cleanly and efficiently. The new process for making a statin drug, described above, is a good example. These large-scale reactions might otherwise require additional chemical steps, each possibly using toxic reagents, polluting solvents and extreme temperatures or pressures that require lots of energy to achieve.

We’re funding scientists across the country who are making progress on various approaches toward environmentally friendly chemical processes.

Zinc’s Role in Healthy Fertilization

Screen shot of the video
Fluorescent sensors at the cell surface show zinc-rich packages being released from the egg during fertilization. Credit: Northwestern Visualization. View video Exit icon

Whether aiding in early growth and development, ensuring a healthy nervous system or guarding the body from illness, zinc plays an important role in the human body.

Husband-and-wife team, Thomas O’Halloran Exit icon and Teresa Woodruff Exit icon, plus other researchers at Northwestern University, evaluated the role that zinc plays in healthy fertilization Exit icon. The study revealed how mouse eggs gather and release billions of zinc atoms at once in events called zinc sparks. These fluxes in zinc concentration are essential in regulating the biochemical processes that facilitate the egg-to-embryo transition.

The scientists developed a series of techniques to determine the amount and location of zinc atoms during an egg cell’s maturation and fertilization as well as in the following two hours. Special imaging methods allowed the researchers to also visualize the movement of zinc sparks in three dimensions. Continue reading

Remotely and Noninvasively Controlling Genes and Cells in Living Animals

Remote control car key.
Researchers are developing a system to remotely control genes or cells in living animals with radio wave technology similar to that used to operate remote control car keys. Credit: Stock image.

One of the items on biomedical researchers’ “to-do” list is devising noninvasive ways to control the activity of specific genes or cells in order to study what those genes or cells do and, ultimately, to treat a range of human diseases and disorders.

A team of scientists recently reported progress on a new, noninvasive system that could remotely and rapidly control biological targets in living animals Exit icon. The system can be activated remotely using either low-frequency radio waves or a magnetic field. Similar radio wave technology operates automatic garage-door openers and remote control car keys and is used in medicine to control electronic pacemakers noninvasively. Magnetic fields are used to activate sensors in burglar alarm systems and to turn your laptop to hibernate mode when the cover is closed. Continue reading

A Bright New Method for Rapidly Screening Cancer Drugs

Illustration of red, green and blue fluorescent proteins.
Chemists have devised a new approach to screening cancer drugs that uses gold nanoparticles with red, green and blue outputs provided by fluorescent proteins. Credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Scientists may screen billions of chemical compounds before uncovering the few that effectively treat a disease. But identifying compounds that work is just the first step toward developing a new therapy. Scientists then have to determine exactly how those compounds function.

Different cancer therapies attack cancer cells in distinct ways. For example, some drugs kill cancer cells by causing their outer membranes to rapidly rupture in a process known as necrosis. Others cause more subtle changes to cell membranes, which result in a type of programmed cell death known as apoptosis.

If researchers could distinguish the membrane alterations of chemically treated cancer cells, they could quickly determine how that chemical compound brings about the cells’ death. A new sensor developed by a research team led by Vincent Rotello Exit icon of the University of Massachusetts Amherst can make these distinctions in minutes. Continue reading

New Streamlined Technique for Processing Biological Samples

Illustration of Slug flow microextraction.
Researchers have discovered a faster, easier and more affordable technique for processing biological samples. Credit: Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, Purdue University.

It’s not unusual for the standard dose of a drug to work well for one person but be less effective for another. One reason for such differences is that individuals can break down drugs at different rates, leading to different concentrations of drugs and of their breakdown products (metabolites) in the bloodstream. A promising new process Exit icon called slug-flow microextraction could make it faster, easier and more affordable to regularly monitor drug metabolites so that medication dosages could be tailored to each patient’s needs, an approach known as personalized medicine. This technique could also allow researchers to better monitor people’s responses to new drug treatments during clinical trials. Continue reading

Delivering Gene-Editing Proteins to Living Cells

Illustration of a DNA strand being cut by a pair of scissors.
Researchers are testing new ways to get gene editing proteins into living cells to potentially modify human genes associated with disease. Credit: Stock image.

Over the last two decades, exciting tools have emerged that allow researchers to cut and paste specific sequences of DNA within living cells, a process called gene editing. These tools, including one adapted from a bacterial defense system called CRISPR, have energized the research community with the possibility of using them to modify human genes associated with disease.

A major barrier to testing medical applications of gene editing has been getting the proteins that do the cutting into the cells of living animals. The main methods used in the laboratory take a roundabout route: Researchers push the DNA templates for making the proteins into cells, and then the cells’ own protein factories produce the editing proteins.

Researchers led by David Liu Exit icon from Harvard University are trying to cut out the middleman, so to speak, by ferrying the editing proteins, not the DNA instructions, directly into cells. In a proof-of-concept study, their system successfully delivered three different types of editing proteins into cells in the inner ears of live mice. Continue reading

E. Coli Bacteria as Medical Sensors and Hard Drives?

E.Coli
Modified E. coli bacteria can serve as sensors and data storage devices for environmental and medical monitoring. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. View larger image

E. coli bacteria help us digest our food, produce vitamin K and have served as a model organism in research for decades. Now, they might one day be harnessed as environmental or medical sensors and long-term data storage devices Exit icon.

MIT researchers Timothy Lu Exit icon and Fahim Farzadfard modified the DNA of E. coli cells so that the cells could be deployed to detect a signal (for example, a small molecule, a drug or the presence of light) in their surroundings. To create the modified E. coli, the scientists inserted into the bacteria a custom-designed genetic tool.

When exposed to the specified signal, the tool triggers a series of biochemical processes that work together to introduce a single mutation at a specific site in the E. coli’s DNA. This genetic change serves to record exposure to the signal, and it’s passed on to subsequent generations of bacteria, providing a continued record of exposure to the signal. In essence, the modified bacteria act like a hard drive, storing biochemical memory for long periods of time. The memory can be retrieved by sequencing the bacteria or through a number of other laboratory techniques. Continue reading

Field Focus: Bringing Biology Into Sharper View with New Microscopy Techniques

Composite image of mitochondria in a cell
In this composite image of mitochondria in a cell, the left panel shows a conventional optical microscopy image, the middle panel shows a three-dimensional (3-D) STORM image with color indicating depth, and the right panel shows a cross-section of the 3-D STORM image. Credit: Xiaowei Zhuang laboratory, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard University. View larger image.

Much as a photographer brings distant objects into focus with a telephoto lens, scientists can now see previously indistinct cellular components as small as a few billionths of a meter (nanometers). By overcoming some of the limitations of conventional optical microscopy, a set of techniques known as super-resolution fluorescence microscopy has changed once-blurry images of the nanoworld into well-resolved portraits of cellular architecture, with details never seen before in biology. Reflecting its importance, super-resolution microscopy was recognized with the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Using the new techniques, scientists can observe processes in living cells across space and time and study the movements, interactions and roles of individual molecules. For instance, they can identify and track the proteins that allow a virus to invade a cell or those that enable tumor cells to migrate to distant parts of the body in metastatic cancer. The ability to analyze individual molecules, rather than collections of molecules, allows scientists to answer longstanding questions about cellular mechanisms and behavior, such as how cells move along a surface or how certain proteins interact with DNA to regulate gene activity. Continue reading

Correcting a Cellular Routing Error Could Treat Rare Kidney Disease

AGT protein and peroxisomes in untreated and treated cells.
The altered AGT protein (red) and peroxisomes (green) appear in different places in untreated cells (top), but they appear together (shown in yellow) in cells treated with DECA (bottom). Credit: Carla Koehler/Reproduced with permission from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. View larger image.

Our cells have organized systems to route newly created proteins to the places where they’re needed to do their jobs. For some people born with a rare and potentially fatal genetic kidney disorder called PH1, a genetically altered form of a particular protein mistakenly ends up in mitochondria instead of in another organelle, the peroxisome. This cellular routing error of the AGT protein results in the harmful buildup of oxalate, which leads to kidney failure and other problems at an early age.

In new work led by UCLA biochemist Carla Koehler Exit icon, researchers used a robotic screening system to identify a compound that interferes with the delivery of proteins to mitochondria. Koehler’s team Exit icon showed that adding a small amount of the compound, known as DECA, to cells grown in the laboratory prevented the altered form of the AGT protein from going to the mitochondria and sent it to the peroxisome. The compound also reduced oxalate levels in a cell model of PH1.

The team’s findings suggest that DECA, which is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating certain bacterial infections, could be a promising candidate for treating children affected by PH1. And, Koehler notes, the screening strategy that she and her team used to identify DECA as a potential therapy may help researchers identify other new therapies for the disorder.

This work was funded in part by NIH under grant R01GM061721.

Molecules Known to Damage Cells May Also Have Healing Power

Free radicals in an ying-yang symbol
Biology in balance: Molecules called free radicals—like the peroxide molecules illustrated here—have a reputation for being dangerous. Now, they’ve revealed healing powers. In worms, at least. Credit: Stock image

When our health is concerned, some molecules are widely labeled “good,” while others are considered “bad.” Often, the truth is more complicated.

Consider free radical molecules. These highly reactive, oxygen-containing molecules are well known for damaging DNA, proteins and other molecules in our bodies. They are suspected of contributing to premature aging and cancer. But now, new research shows they might also have healing powers Exit icon.

Using the oft-studied laboratory roundworm known as C. elegans, a research group led by Andrew Chisholm Exit icon at the University of California, San Diego, made a surprising discovery. Free radicals, specifically those made in cell structures called mitochondria, appear necessary for skin wounds to heal. In fact, higher (but not dangerously high) levels of the molecules can actually speed wound closure.

If further research shows the same holds true in humans, the work could point to new ways to treat hard-to-heal wounds, like diabetic foot ulcers.

This work was funded in part by NIH under grants R01GM054657 and P40OD010440.