An easier and safer way to synthesize medicines: Researchers harness the power of carbenes to better make drugs

Despite being some of the most versatile building blocks in organic chemistry, compounds called carbenes can be too hot to handle. In the lab, chemists often avoid using these highly reactive molecules due to how explosive they can be.

Yet in a new study, published today in the journal Science, researchers from The Ohio State University report on a new, safer method to turn these short-lived, high-energy molecules from much more stable ones.

“Carbenes have an incredible amount of energy in them,” said David Nagib, co-author of the study and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ohio State. “The value of that is they can do chemistry that you just cannot do any other way.”

In fact, members of the Nagib Lab specialize in harnessing reagents with such high chemical energy, and have helped invent a multitude of new substances and techniques that would otherwise be chemically unobtainable.

In this study, the researchers developed catalysts made out of cheap, Earth-abundant metals, like iron, copper and cobalt, and combined them to facilitate their new method of harnessing carbene.

They were able to successfully use this new strategy to channel the power of reactive carbenes to fabricate valuable molecules on a larger scale and much more quickly than traditional methods. Nagib compared this leap to engineers figuring out how to use steel to build skyscrapers rather than brick and mortar.

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