Discoveries made during PhD studies by Victoria University graduate Emma Dangerfield could revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry, by allowing drugs to be made in a more environmentally friendly way.
Dr Dangerfield’s formula allows drug molecules to be made in five to eight steps, around half the usual number. Instead of petrol, her system uses water and ethanol, delivering environmental benefits and cutting the costs involved in generating and disposing of waste. It also uses renewable raw materials that come from plants, such as trees, corn and rice husks.
Traditional methods of drug manufacture use toxic organic solvents and petrochemicals, a process that results in around 240,000 tonnes of potentially harmful waste having to be disposed of each year.
The work, which has been patented, is one of two strands of research into carbohydrates - energy-giving sugars and starches – carried out by Dr Dangerfield as part of a joint project between Victoria University and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. Dr Dangerfield is being supervised by Malaghan’s Dr Bridget Stocker and Victoria’s Dr Mattie Timmer.
Dr Dangerfield discovered two new chemical reactions and, subsequently, developed a process that uses them to more quickly and efficiently make aza sugars, important molecules in the manufacture of drugs to treat diseases such as diabetes, cancer and viral infections like HIV.
“Rather than just using the technologies we’ve got, I’ve always believed we should be trying to find new, better ways of synthesising molecules,” says Dr Dangerfield.
After proving the viability of the system she developed, Dr Dangerfield went on to investigate how the technology performed in other drug development reactions, with promising results.
The green chemistry research Dr Dangerfield is involved with has been published in six international journals, including Organic Letters, and been cited in top-ranked publications such as Nature Chemistry.
A number of other students working on the joint Victoria/Malaghan research project are continuing to research green chemistry, an area in its infancy but one that Dr Dangerfield says is attracting a lot of international attention.
The other strand of her PhD research was carried out as part of a programme to develop new treatments that use the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
Her focus was on a very powerful “super” immune cell in the human body, called the iNKT (Natural Killer T) cell, which can give the immune system a giant boost and help it attack and kill cancer cells.
Dr Dangerfield has been identifying compounds called glycolipids that can activate iNKT cells.
Internationally, a number of research groups are studying the activity of iNKT cells and Dr Dangerfield’s work, which is soon to be published in the international journal ChemBioChem, will feed into a growing body of knowledge about how to harness the power of this super cell.
Dr Dangerfield completed undergraduate and Honours degrees in Biomedical Science at Victoria before beginning her PhD in 2008.
“You do count the journey from the start of your university study so it feels great to have reached this particular milestone.”
Long term, Dr Dangerfield intends to continue researching the role carbohydrates play in the immune system.