My lab and I have plans to start experimenting with several compound classes that we’ve never handled before. In fact, for some of these, no one’s handled them before. Some of these are not only novel as in patentable, for which fairly small changes can suffice, but novel as in what-the-heck-is-that. I couldn’t be happier.
Honestly, I have no idea of what I’d do with a job where I knew what was going to happen next. Years of science have ruined me for a lot of other occupations. I was putting some of these up on the board the other day, and mentioning what I’d like to try. “Do you know if you can do that?” someone asked, and I answered that no, I didn’t, and as far as I could tell, no one else did, either. I can draw out a bunch of reasonable-looking reactions, but the structures themselves may well have other ideas.
The first time I realized that I was in new territory, although to a much lesser degree, was back in my first year of graduate school. My first few reactions generated things that were already known in the group, naturally, and then I made some model systems that were already known in the literature. But pretty soon I remember making a compound that I realized just flat-out wasn’t in Chemical Abstracts, because no one had ever had the need to make it before. (As far as I know, no one’s had any need to make the stuff again, either – if someone has, I hope they got more use out of it than I did!) But there it was, in a flask: something that had never existed before.
My list of such compounds is now rather lengthy. In the drug industry, naturally, we spend just about all our time making compounds that haven’t existed before. (If they’ve been exemplified somewhere, you can forget about a patent on the chemical matter itself). Our livelihoods depend on cranking out thousands upon thousands of compounds that no one else has made. I haven’t seen the figures, but I’d guess that a large fraction of the new small organic molecules that get registered every year in Chemical Abstracts are from pharma. Those patents with the three-hundred-page experimental sections do start to add up.
This latest stuff, though, goes a few steps beyond that, to whole compound classes that no one’s touched yet. I may well find that there’s a whole set of very solid reasons why these things haven’t appeared in the literature – perhaps these reasonable reactions of mine have been tried in recent years, but found only to produce more of that gooey dark stuff in the bottom of the flask. We shall see. I’ve certainly made my share of that material.
But I doubt that all of them are in that category. So with any luck, soon I’ll be making something no one’s ever made, and finding things out about it that no one’s ever discovered. And as I said, I couldn’t be happier about that.