Reflections on CHEM21 Progress as we near the midterm point of the funding cycle

Blog June 2014 – Simon Dolan – CHEM21 Project Co-Ordinator

The consortium is now 18 months into its 4 year funding programme. When I was asked whether I would like to be part of and co-lead CHEM21 with Nick Turner back in October 2012 I was apprehensive as you can imagine of the scale of the challenge.  Bringing together 19 affiliates from academia and industry to focus on a wide range of sustainable technologies has its challenges not least of which was to recruit and deploy over 35 investigators knowing that the funding clock is about to start ticking.  Indeed it took us the best part of 2013 to come up to full speed, but at our first Scientific Advisory Board meeting held on the 15th May 2014 it was clear that we were starting to make significant progress on many fronts.  As I reflect on the output and feedback from that meeting my own thoughts were one of growing excitement not just at the science but  importantly how we were seeking to work together as team and really starting to examine synthetic problems in a holistic way a from a chemical, biological and engineering combined perspective.

One of the key strengths of the consortium is its diversity, but how best to focus scientists of many different backgrounds and disciplines to work in multidisciplinary teams.  To do this we have selected a number of ‘Essential medicines’ as targets to apply new methodologies in an integrated way.  These are typically small molecules that are off patent but in themselves are still significant medicines from a WHO perspective being used to treat disease threats from Malaria, TB etc.  Working in teams of chemists, molecular biologists, microbiologists and industrial biotechnologists creates an opportunity to tackle pharmaceutical manufacturing problems in a very different and unique way.  What is emerging from this ‘collision’ of different backgrounds and perspectives are some significant opportunities to combine a variety of new methodologies to substantially improve sustainability.  While all this is very encouraging, it is the translation of these methodologies from the bench into a large scale pilot plant setting that is the real proof of the versatility and importance of these new methods for the benefit ultimately of the patient with better quality and more sustainable products.  So as well as bringing the researches together to address current synthetic challenges we are also now in a position to select and scale up some of these new methods for example in areas of CH activation, hydrogenation or fluorination in batch or flow.  This is a very exciting point in the lifecycle of this consortium as the EFPIA partners combine to make this possible.

I am also very encouraged by the setting up of our young researcher network lead by York University.  This network is the engine room of CHEM21 and now has regular meetings to discuss results, brainstorm ideas for ‘Essential Medicines’, look at new ways of capturing and sharing data (for example though our new reactions database being set up by Leeds University) and evaluating whether our new technology is not only versatile but greener as well.

Finally, I also reflect on the possibilities of creating easy access to new molecular templates for medicinal chemistry.  This is a very active part of our research programme, in particular by Orion Pharma and Pfizer.  Ultimately, if we can succeed in providing new methods for the creation of the candidate molecule back into Discovery, then the Development organisation has a good starting point to scale up these molecules in an efficient way.

All in all, I’m very grateful that 18 months ago I accepted this challenge to work with some outstanding and highly collaborative individuals and teams.  I’m really looking forward to the second half of this project and I am not at all apprehensive now that we have laid the foundation for a highly collaborative and integrated consortium.

Simon Dolan – CHEM21 Project Co-Ordinator