Better drugs, at lower costs, will no longer be a dream, if the research taken up by Ramesh Rasappan, an IISER-Thiruvananthapuram faculty, is successful. He has won the Ramanujan Fellowship instituted by Department of Science and Technology to work on ‘Stereoconvergent Cross-Coupling: Asymmetric Synthesis of Boronic Esters and Silanes’ for the next five years.
The Assistant Professor at School of Chemistry, IISER-Thiruvananthapuram, says, “Suppose the usual synthesis has 5-10 steps, the methodology I am trying to develop will have just one or two steps. However, it will not just be simpler or more cost-effective, but improved. For, if successful, it will help improve the purity of the drug.”
To understand asymmetric synthesis, one needs to know that most drugs are 3D molecules. Each 3D molecule will have two or more isomers, which have the same chemical composition, but different arrangement of atoms. When these are mirror images of each other, these are called enantiomers.
Ramesh explains, “Imagine you are standing in front of a mirror. You and your mirror image look similar, but is not the same, isn’t it? Likewise, a 3D molecule will have two isomers. Both will have the same composition, but different 3D orientations.”
This will lead to them having different properties. For example, a non-saccharide sweetener called Aspartame has two enantiomers, one which tastes sweet, and the other which is tasteless.
“If there are two isomers, only one would be beneficial. The other could be inactive or have side-effects. Asymmetric catalysis aims at the synthesis of a single isomer,” says Ramesh.
Though the history of asymmetric synthesis dates back to the 1800s, it would not assume significance in the pharmaceutical industry until the Thalidomide tragedy. Introduced in Germany as an over-the-counter drug in 1957, Thalidomide would be prescribed as a sedative ‘safe for everyone’ and for morning sickness in pregnant women.
But in the sixties, there were reports of around 10,000 babies born with deformities. The reason would be traced back to one of the two enantiomers of Thalidomide. After this incident, the pharmaceutical industry would investigate into methods to synthesise the beneficial isomer, rather than a mixture of isomers.
“We will not be improvising an existing methodology. It will be a completely new and simpler one,” says Ramesh.
The Fellowship is given to scientists who are doing Post-Doctoral abroad and are willing to return to India. Ramesh applied for Ramajunan Fellowship while pursuing his post-doctoral at School of Chemistry, Bristol, England.
He will receive Rs 7 lakh per year for the research.
Ramesh says, “Much has changed in India. Just ten years ago, the lab facilities for advanced research were poor in the country. But now, it is different, especially IISERs. Compared to many other national science and technology institutions, they have good funding for research,” he says.
He is also happy that he is not too far from Namakkal, his home town in Tamil Nadu.