The Continuous Search for New Medicine

With so-called “big science” projects occurring left and right, recently including the LIGO discovery of gravitational waves and the colossal Human Genome Project, chemistry is one scientific field with tremendous potential, but minimal funding. Chemist Martin Burke has proposed a potentially tremendous project for chemistry; to chemically synthesize most of the nearly 300,000 known natural products in the world.

Chemical synthesis is a long and arduous process

The project is truly a mammoth. Using a machine he and his colleagues created, Burke plans to synthesize these compounds from an estimated 1,400 DNA building blocks. The initial prognosis estimates that the project will cost about one billion dollars, and could take approximately two decades to complete. The complex structures of the natural products, which are used in everything from perfume to vaccines, are responsible for the intricacy of the project. Despite the massive investment of time and money, the benefits of such a venture are undeniable.

Upon completion of this project, the ready availability of natural compounds has the potential to provide an immense boost to the field of medicine. The natural products could be tinkered with and built upon by scientists to create new drugs and vaccines to combat disease. Novel drugs would be easier than ever to imagine and create, with the natural products serving as their backbone.

Martin Burke: the mastermind behind the synthesis project

However, the projects completion appears to be a long-shot at this point in time, for multiple reasons. The funding for such a venture is a major problem, with organizations like the National Science Foundation and NASA currently focused on other big-science projects. In addition, the Trump Administration has proposed a twenty percent budget cut to the NIGMS in Maryland, which would be instrumental to supporting and funding the project. Secondly, the amount of time necessary for the completion of Burke’s project, as well as its uncertainty, is daunting for investors. The money is simply not there yet. But if Burke finds a way past these obstacles and receives the stipend he requires, the future for innovative medicines and new cures in the medical field will be brighter than ever.




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