About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Die-oxin? | Main | The Other COX-2 Shoe Drops »

December 16, 2004

Lab of the Future!

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

One of my colleagues at a former company used to speculate about what gadgets he really wanted in the lab. The only problem was that some of these came near to violating physical laws, and the ones that didn't needed. . .well, a bit of R&D work before they could be launched.

Take the "Molecular Weight Grabber." This, my friend explained, would be something that you dipped down into your crude reaction mixture and sloshed around - it'd be about the size of a magnetic stir bar retriever, for those of you in the field. And it would have a dial on the top of it that you could set to the desired molecular weight, and only things of that weight would stick to it. Then you pull it out, stick it into another flask, hit a button to release everything, and on to the next step.

That would be pretty useful, all right. I can vaguely imagine how a massively robust nanotechnology could actually produce something like that, too - molecular-size torsion balances to sort things out and so on. I imagine it would need a pretty robust power source to accomplish all that work and run back all that entropy, but that's something for the marketing guys to work out, right?

So here's my question: what other lab gizmos would you order if you could? I'll feature the best one in a future post. No thermodynamic impossibilities, please. A semi-plausible explanation of how your idea would work will help your chances, too. Leave 'em in the comments section and let's all get rich.

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Peter Ellis on December 17, 2004 4:30 AM writes...

Along much the same lines - chirality sorter? Maybe something like a FACS machine, but that measures the chirality of an individual molecule, then pings it left or right into your collection vessels.

In my field (molecular genetics), basically a bunch of tools to work at single-cell level. Something that could do a complete SNP rundown of a single cell would be good - actually for that "all" you need is *really* high fidelity amplification techniques and an incremental improvement of the current SNP chips. Possibly doable inside a decade. Expression profiling of a single cell - similar comments apply.

Next, something that could genotype a cell without damaging it - bunch of little nanobots carry in the probe designed to detect allele A or B, check it out, send a signal, disengage and leave the cell still viable. The commercial demand for that in sperm sorting for directed breeding programs would be huge. Not to mention that you can use it to diagnose inherited disorders not just preimplantation but prefertilisation. Want to make sure you don't pass on Huntingdon's? They could do it without generating and destroying excess embryos - a major win on the ethical front.

Permalink to Comment

2. SP on December 17, 2004 9:30 AM writes...

Molecular synthesizer- similar to how those IBM guys put down individual atoms on a surface to make smiley faces. Forget about retrosynthetic analysis- want an aldehyde at this position? Shoot the atoms onto the molecule with your AFM tip and make it. Of course, it would have to be massively parallel to make more than a single molecule at a time.

Permalink to Comment

3. The Novice Chemist on December 17, 2004 10:02 AM writes...

Miniature-sized NMR: that would be so cool. Imagine a NMR the size of a ketchup bottle; it would simply require a better magnet, probe machinery and a whole other coolant for the magnet. Liquid hydrogen, perchance?

Molecular vision: it could even be indirect, like a visual version of NMR. (You could get your goggles to cancel out solvent signal.) Throw on the goggles, put the probe into the flask. 'So, that's why this reaction isn't working! The LDA is deprotonating the completely wrong proton!)

Permalink to Comment

4. Phil-Z on December 17, 2004 10:21 AM writes...

Remember that gasoline commercial a few years back that had a lab coated model swirl around some "fuel" in a 1L volumetric and intone "It's better"? I want her in my lab. Strictly for analytical reasons, of course! Not really a gadget I suppose ....

Permalink to Comment

5. Jim Gwyn on December 17, 2004 11:35 AM writes...

I have a couple;

A really good HPLC/MS interface certified by the EPA for wastewater compliance analyses. We have enormous trouble with thermally labile organics. Estrogen mimics, surfactants and drug residues are real bubgears in the wastewater business. This is not really a scientific issue but a regulatory one. I guess that moves it into fantasy.

And then the silly but nice one:

A waste disposal system with no manifesting issues and no worries about being a "Potentially Responsible Party" 20 years later. Perhaps one where the material is heated to plasma temps, sorted (by mass spec?) into C, H2, O2, N2, 1-A metals, heavier metals and halide rich streams. It could also have some energy recovery by magnetohydrodynamics. Upgraded units could reprocess the primary output to recover "hot" isotopes. Also it could really cut the bill for precious metal catylists.

Permalink to Comment

6. Mike on December 17, 2004 1:44 PM writes...

PCR for organic chemists: Have only 12 mg of that final product? Just throw in these enzymes, feed them some basic building blocks, wait awhile ... now you've got 12 grams of it.

Permalink to Comment

7. Jake McGuire on December 17, 2004 3:58 PM writes...

Supercritical water oxidation seems to do a serious number on even slightly complex molecules - nothing organic will make it through. You'll still have heavy metals to deal with somehow, but it's a start.

And perhaps in the molecular biology lab of the future, we'll have computer software that will go from amino acid sequence to 3-D protein model instantly (or close enough).

Permalink to Comment

8. Mike M on December 17, 2004 4:17 PM writes...

How about 'nanobot protecting groups'. Protecting a secondary amine in the presense of two other primary amines? No problem, just download the structure/weight of the molecule of interest with the appropriate coordinates and the bot will find the appropriate secondary amine and you'll be all set to react your primary amines. When your finished, click your nanobot remote and they all let go. (This works best in combination with the "Molecular Weight Grabber" for purification.)

What I would really like to have, however, is a little movie camera that can take pictures with x-ray resolution. Imagine an actual movie of translation...all of the tRNA, mRNA and proteins and ribosome coming together to build the peptide chain, and then watching the protein fold as it is made. Cool, no?

Permalink to Comment

9. Joss Delage on December 17, 2004 5:47 PM writes...

All those are mighty cool, but of course by the time you have this powerful a nanotechnology, you don't need a lab per se anymore. Come to think of it, you don't need drugs either.

Permalink to Comment

10. Harry on December 17, 2004 6:11 PM writes...

How about a Brown/Black Tar remover? A simple little gadet that you drop into your reaction mixture and it simply removes that most common product of an organic synthesis- the "brown or black intractable tar".

I can think of thousands of man hours saved by such a device.

Of course- in many (most?) cases there would be little or nothing left behind. Another problem for the marketing boys, I suppose.

Permalink to Comment

11. Leland Burrill on December 17, 2004 6:49 PM writes...

Not getting that displacement you're looking for? Let me introduce the
mic-criticosoniwave! It's not just a microwave! It's not just a pressure tube! And this is no mere sonicator! It's all of that and more!

Just put your reagents in the sturdy vessel and seal it up good. The Mic-criticosoniwave will microwave your sample, and high pressures, while also sonicating (sp?) and irradiating with energetic ultraviolet rays!

Spot to spot!

(Since mic-criticosoniwave relies on already known technologies, I am exempt from offerring plausible means of developing this instrument.)

In other news, these totally rock.

Permalink to Comment

12. weirdo on December 17, 2004 7:20 PM writes...

"Black/Brown Tar Remover". I think we have that already. It's called "Activated Charcoal".

I haven't seen anyone talk about "molecular tweezers" yet. Which would require, of course, "molecular superglue".

Permalink to Comment

13. Jobius on December 17, 2004 10:45 PM writes...

Neutrino radiators: harmlessly disperse waste heat in a form that won't interact with normal matter. If reduction or sequestration of atmospheric carbon emissions doesn't slow global warming enough, we can just hook up giant air conditioners to our fusion power plants, and turn the waste heat into energetic neutrinos. It does an end-run around the second law of thermodynamics, but it doesn't violate any physical laws -- supernovas routinely emit most of their energy in neutrino form.

Permalink to Comment

14. SP on December 18, 2004 12:26 AM writes...

There's already work on the requests from both Mikes (except for the movie idea)- at the bottom of the page, see reference 18 for "PCR for organic chemists" and references 8 and 24 for "nanobot protecting groups". Ok, the PCR doesn't actually create more synthetic product, but it lets you screen on the femtomol scale.

Permalink to Comment

15. Harry on December 18, 2004 9:14 AM writes...

Well- in my experience (25+ years (OMG)), activated carbon is a fairly indifferent tar remover, even assuming you can dissolve the tar in something thats not fiendishly difficult to remove from your product.

As always, YMMV.

Permalink to Comment


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry