Billion-dollar project would synthesize hundreds of thousands of molecules in search of new medicines

By Robert F. Service

Martin Burke is a tad envious. A chemist at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Burke has watched funding agencies back major research initiatives in other fields. Biologists pulled in billions of dollars to decipher the human genome, and physicists persuaded governments to fund the gargantuan Large Hadron Collider, which discovered the Higgs boson. Meanwhile chemists, divided among dozens of research areas, often wind up fighting for existing funds.

Burke wants to change that. At the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting here earlier this month, he proposed that chemists rally around an initiative to synthesize most of the hundreds of thousands of known organic natural products: the diverse small molecules made by microbes, plants, and animals. “It would be a moon mission for our field,” Burke says. The effort, which would harness an automated synthesis machine he and his colleagues developed to snap together molecules from a set of premade building blocks, could cost $1 billion and take 20 years, Burke estimates. But the idea captivates at least some in the field. “Assuming it’s a robust technology, I would have to think it would be revolutionary,” says John Reed, the global head of pharma research and early development at Roche in Basel, Switzerland. “Even if it only allowed you to make half the compounds, it strikes me as worthy.”

Natural products have countless uses in modern society. They make up more than half of all medicines, as well as dyes, diagnostic probes, perfumes, sweeteners, lotions, and so on. “There’s probably not a home on the planet that has not been impacted by natural products,” Burke says.

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