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European Biopharmaceutical Review

Catalyst for Improvement

The use of enzymes in industrial bioprocesses is becoming increasingly important. This is partially driven by the pharmaceutical sector in the development of new therapeutic agents that are required to be enantiomerically pure compounds. Enzymes are able to carry out reactions using both regio- and stereo-specificity. Often drug molecules are large molecules with several chiral centres. The complexity of these molecules requires that their production by catalytic methods encompasses several enzymatic steps.

These molecules can often be difficult to synthesise by conventional chemical synthesis, and frequently a combination of chemical and biocatalytic steps is used. One benefit to using enzymes is that the chemistry is carried out in an environmentally friendly manner with fewer toxic waste products that require careful disposal. The new drug molecules and intermediates produced by biocatalytic methods result in the production of new and safer products due to their homochirality. This is beneficial both to the general public and to the pharmaceutical companies.

Biocatalysis is frequently preferred over chemo-catalysis due to its high performance under mild conditions. This minimises problems of isomerisation, racemisation, epimerisation and rearrangements and reduces the quantity of side products that can occur during chemical processes. The number of chiral drug intermediates produced by enzymes is expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2010. The number of industrialised biotransformations has doubled every decade since 1960.


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Professor Jenny Littlechild is a Professor of Biological Chemistry and Director of the Exeter Biocatalysis Centre located in the Henry Wellcome Building for Biocatalysis. Jenny carried out her PhD in the Biophysics Laboratory, Kings College, London University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the Biochemistry Department at Princeton University, US. In 1975 she became a group leader at the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany. She then returned to the UK to Bristol University, before moving to Exeter with a Wellcome Trust University Award. She is Programme Director of the Biological and Medicinal Chemistry Degree Course and the Masters Programme in Biocatalysis at Exeter. She is a member of the RSC Chemical Biology Executive Forum, and is the UK representative for the European Section on Applied Biocatalysis. She has had over 110 publications printed, and presented her research work internationally.
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Professor Jenny Littlechild
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