I had only ever seen this man in photographs. You can never quite get a feeling of how imposing someone can be until you have seen them in the cold light of day. As he walked into the room there was a murmur of anticipation, but overriding the excitement was panic. His weapon was shrouded in darkness; a tight-fitting sleeve concealed it from view, but we knew it was there. As he laid it down with a delicacy unbefitting of such a powerful man, silence overcame the room. The sound of the zipper echoed in your ears as he slowly, painfully slowly, began to reveal his weapon of choice. The silver surface that reflected light from above calmed some, but others became more frenzied, pushing closer, straining, trying to see. As he peeled the ceiling back from the case, the anguish in the room was clear to see; it was upside down, we still didn’t know. The great man lifted the exquisitely crafted tool out of the case and turned it slowly towards us, we finally caught a glimpse of the power contained within. Panic turned to joy, muted whooping came from the back of the room, things were going to be okay……there was the crescent cut apple. It was a mac book pro after all.
I have mentioned the man in question before as he cropped up in most of the major newspapers a couple of weeks ago. He had just published a paper reporting a highly efficient and cost-effective method of synthesising artemisinin, the leading treatment for malaria worldwide. As this hit the news I found out he was coming to the University of Manchester to give a lecture on this work, so off I went to watch Peter Seeburger tell the story of his discovery.
As you may have figured from the introduction, Professor Peter Seeburger is a grand figure, tall and broad, with an imposing voice. The time Seeburger has spent in Germany where he was born, and his time in the United States where he spent most of his early career, has had the most brilliant impact on his accent; he sounds just like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seeberger is an engaging and entertaining speaker with a great story to tell. He is not a medicinal chemist by trade, nor did he have a particular interest in malaria, but his interest in improving chemical synthesis at a fundamental level opened the door for his recent discovery.
Seeberger has a long-established interest in the synthesis of oligosaccharides (carbohydrates), building complex polymeric compounds from individual sugar monomers. This is historically a painstaking process, but Seeberger has developed the chemistry and technology to create an automated process that parallels the more established solid phase synthesis of peptides. Seeberger began by discussing the impact of his automated system; in his early career working in the laboratory Samuel Danishefsky, it took Seeberger and his colleagues two years to synthesise an oligosaccharide that his student recently made in a matter of days. The ease of now making a broad range of oligosacharrides opened up the door for Seeberger into a new area of research, as this fundamental step forward in synthetic methodology has made the application of carbohydrates in medicinal research tenable. Vaccines for chlamydia, c.difficle, and streptococcus C are all under investigation by Seeberger, and anthrax testing kits employing carbohydrates have been produced.
Though Seeberger’s work in carbohydrates dominates his research profile it is by no means his sole focus, and his recent work on the synthesis of artemisinin for the treatment of malaria was not borne from this, but again from looking at improving the efficiency of sythesising chemical compounds. Bearing in mind that whenever I looked at Seeberger whilst he was speaking all I could see (and hear) was the terminator, you can imaging my joy when he began discussing this work with a picture of the malaria parasite and the following statement:
Malaria. I hate this parasite. I want to kill it.
I nearly fell off my chair.
Taking material that is currently regarded as waste in the current approach to synthesising artemisinin, Seeberger employs a modern synthetic technique know as flow chemistry, and uses light to mediate some of the required chemical bond forming processes. The development of this technology by Seeberger means that artemisinin factories the size of large cardboard boxes can be made for £10,000. Seeberger states that for approximately £4 million pounds, the tools to provide the world’s supply of artemisinin can be generated. The cost of producing of artemisinin would fall to approximately 10% of what it is today, and could be synthesised where it was needed.
As a grand reflection on his character, Seeberger has not patented his discovery and intends to roll out this technology as cheaply and quickly as possible. Following his lecture tour he had a meeting with the UN, the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, and an unnamed celebrity with a penchant for adopting foreign children. Fingers crossed this will provide the financial support needed to roll this out.
This research is a great advert for academic research. Had this discovery been made in the chemical industry, it would have been patented and sold. Maybe even more important was that Seeberger’s discovery was not borne out of direct research into malaria, but was consequence of fundamental research into improving methods of chemical synthesis. Fundamental research as a whole is now increasingly difficult to find funding for because of policy to fund research with obvious applications, and this is a problem. Although applied research is essential, it needs to be remembered that this can only take you so far. Without the new fundamental discoveries to provide the scientific understanding and establish the underlying principles, applications can not be developed. So please, to all of those who make sweeping reforms in how scientific research is funded, bear this in mind. If we do not invest in the fundamental research, a few years down the line, we will have nothing to develop applications from.
Here is the paper for the synthesis of artemisinin (the website is down so I will link later)
Angewandte Chemie, International Edition (2012), 51(7), 1706-1709.
This is the paper for the flow chemistry using light to generate singlet oxygen DOI: 10.1021/ol2017643
Chemistry world piece is here : Tube-wrapped lamp makes malaria drug
A guardian interview with Seeberger is here: Peter Seeberger: we can treat malaria for less