Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
As director of BU’s Center for Molecular Discovery (CMD), John Porco has helped to create some 7,000 new molecules. To a chemist’s eye, their ornate “architecture” makes them beautiful, says Porco. But to the millions of people with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and infections that don’t respond to existing therapies, these molecules have beauty of a very different kind: they just might be able to treat diseases that today’s drugs can’t cure.
The molecules in the CMD’s boutique library are far more complex than those you’d find in standard, off-the-shelf compounds. That makes them more like the biologically active molecules found in nature, and more likely to deliver precision treatments that aren’t toxic to healthy cells. But it also makes them challenging to synthesize. In fact, drug makers traditionally prefer to use simple molecules because they are easier to create in the lab.
“When you’re running the same reaction dozens or hundreds of times, you want it to work every time, so people generally use very simple reactions, which generally give rise to very simple molecules,” explains Lauren Brown, research assistant professor of chemistry and assistant director of the CMD. “The more complex a molecule is, the more difficult it is to put together.”