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Controlling Molecules for Better Experimental Outcomes

Constance BaileyOn average, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, approves 20 new drugs per year for public use. Each of those drugs has been on a decade long journey of research and development that may have cost as much as $2.6 billion. The JDRD work of Constance Bailey, assistant professor of chemistry, could help reduce the time, and subsequently costs, of drug development. 

Creating pharmaceuticals is a complex process that typically begins in a lab. The process of constructing drugs relies heavily on understanding how certain molecules exist in three-dimensional space, or stereochemistry. 

“Stereochemistry is really important for developing safe pharmaceutical intermediates, the building blocks of complex molecules. If you can’t control the stereochemistry then the drugs don’t fit together correctly,” said Bailey.  

Molecules have what Bailey described as handedness. Putting two molecules together is similar to a handshake; one molecule acts as the right hand and one acts as the left hand allowing them to fit together correctly. If both molecules are the right hand, the handshake does not work correctly. Bailey’s JDRD team is investigating how to control the handedness of particular molecules.  

“Enzymes are really naturally good at doing this, so what we’re trying to do is figure out how to selectively harness the enzymes in a fairly easy and trivial way to make one mirror image, or one hand, into the other,” said Bailey. 

The ultimate goal of Bailey’s work is to discover a method to allow scientists to determine in advance what changes may be needed in a molecule in the context of an experiment. While the pharmaceutical industry may be one of the most immediately relevant areas that could benefit from Bailey’s work, it is far from the only one. 

“There are actually a lot of broad applications beyond just the pharmaceutical applications, for example in materials. In a sense, the work we’re doing is kind of a fundamental science problem,” said Bailey. “How do you selectively create three-dimensional structures that could have applications in all different areas of chemistry?” 

Bailey’s team adapted to the university wide changes due to COVID-19 by having online meetings with their collaborator, Omar Demerdesh, Liane B. Russell Distinguished Fellow in the biosciences division at ORNL. While her lab was closed, Bailey and her students used their time digging deep into the literature and formulating an updated strategy for moving forward.