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December 13, 2013
Erythropoetin From Scratch
The Danishefsky group has published their totally synthetic preparation of erythropoetin. This is a work that's been in progress for ten years now (here's the commentary piece on it), and it takes organic synthesis into realms that no one's quite experienced yet:
The ability to reach a molecule of the complexity of 1 by entirely chemical means provides convincing testimony about the growing power of organic synthesis. As a result of synergistic contributions from many laboratories, the aspirations of synthesis may now include, with some degree of realism, structures hitherto referred to as “biologics”— a term used to suggest accessibility only by biological means (isolation from plants, fungi, soil samples, corals, or microorganisms, or by recombinant expression). Formidable as these methods are for the discovery, development, and manufacturing of biologics, one can foresee increasing needs and opportunities for chemical synthesis to provide the first samples of homogeneous biologics. As to production, the experiments described above must be seen as very early days. . .
I can preach that one both ways, as the old story has it. I take the point about how synthesis can provide these things in more homogeneous form than biological methods can, and it can surely provide variations on them that biological systems aren't equipped to produce. At the same time, I might put my money on improving the biological methods rather than stretching organic synthesis to this point, at least in its present form. I see the tools of molecular biology as hugely powerful, but in need of customization, whereas organic synthesis can be as custom as you like, but can (so far) only reach this sort of territory by all-out efforts like Danishefsky's. In other words, I think that molecular biology has to improve less than organic chemistry has to get the most use out of such molecules.
That said, I think that the most impressive part of this impressive paper is the area where we have the fewest molecular biology tools: the synthesis of the polysaccharide side chains. Assembling the peptide part was clearly no springtime stroll (and if you read the paper, you find that they experienced the heartbreak of having to go back and redesign things when the initial assembly sequence failed). But polyglycan chemistry has been a long-standing problem (and one that Danishefsky himself has been addressing for years). I think that chemical synthesis really has a much better shot at being the method of choice there. And that should tell you what state the field is in, because synthesis of those things can be beastly. If someone manages to tame the enzymatic machinery that produces them, that'll be great, but for now, we have to make these things the organic chemistry way when we dare to make them at all.
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