Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have achieved a feat in synthetic chemistry by inventing a scalable method to make complex natural compounds known as "polyhydroxylated steroids." These compounds, used in heart-failure medications and other drugs, have been notoriously problematic to synthesize in the laboratory.
The researchers demonstrated the new strategy by synthesizing ouabagenin [wa-bah-jenn-in], a close chemical cousin of ouabain, which Somali tribes once used as a potent poison on the tips of their arrows but was later developed as a treatment for congestive heart failure. This achievement, reported in the January 4, 2012 issue of Science, points the way to a scalable formation and modification of a variety of useful compounds that had been obtainable in significant quantities only from plants or animals.
"Previous synthetic routes to these compounds required so many steps as to be impractical on a large scale," said Phil S. Baran, a professor and a member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at TSRI, "but we were able to come up with a completely new strategy."
Looking for Answers
The Baran laboratory has a longstanding interest in the practical and scalable synthesis of complex natural products. The group's latest achievement was stimulated by a request from a Denmark-based drug company, LEO Pharma, whose chemists sought an efficient way to make complex, bioactive steroids. "We decided to go for the most complex member of the family, ouabagenin, which is probably the most polyhydroxylated steroid known on planet Earth," said Baran.
Polyhydroxylated steroids have four carbon-based rings and are adorned with several hydroxyl groups, giving these molecules a high oxidation level and making them very difficult to synthesize and modify using simple methods. "Ouabagenin has six of these hydroxyl groups, which also exist in a lopsided orientation," said Hans Renata, a graduate student in the Baran laboratory who was first author of the study. "This confers a strong directionality on ouabagenin molecules, so that they tend to stick even to inorganic material such as laboratory glassware, especially on small scale."