A potential breakthrough in techniques to develop drugs to treat diseases as diverse as cancer and Alzheimer’s has been reported by chemists at the University of Leicester in the UK.

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Amino acids are used to make all proteins – the Leicester team refers to them as “Mother Nature’s building blocks,” as they are essential for life.

The Jamieson Research Group in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Leicester claim to have developed a new process for generating a specific synthetic amino acid.

Amino acids are used to make all proteins – the Leicester team refers to them as “Mother Nature’s building blocks,” as they are essential for life.

“We are very proud of this research,” says lead scientist Dr. Andrew Jamieson, “it has taken several years of hard work to master the chemistry techniques to create these new building blocks, but now that we have conquered it, we have access to new building blocks that people have only ever dreamed of before!”

There are 20 naturally produced amino acids in total. By contrast, the new chemical synthesis of unnatural amino acids pioneered by the Leicester team could be used to make designer mini-proteins with entirely new structures and functions from those found in nature.

The researchers say they are particularly interested in using the designer proteins to create innovative new treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Jamieson explains:

Unnatural amino acids, the building blocks, are described as chiral, meaning they have ‘handedness.’ A robust synthesis to selectively produce molecules with a particular handedness has not previously been reported. Our new practical method allows us to selectively synthesize only the ‘right handed molecules.’

This new research is important because it has uncovered a new, easier and quicker way to make these building blocks which can be used to make new drugs. We now have access to new building blocks to develop innovative new protein drugs for the treatment of disease.”

Dr. Jamieson mentions that a student also used the building blocks to synthesize a toxin produced by a sea snail, which the team hopes to develop as a new painkiller.

Back in April, chemists from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) reported a similar breakthrough in creating, for the first time, enzyme-like activity using peptides (chemical compounds comprised of amino acids) that are only seven amino acids long.

Ivan V. Korendovych, assistant professor of chemistry who co-led the UCSF study, said:

“It was the first time that a peptide this small self-assembled to produce an enzyme-like catalyst. Our finding suggests that amyloids, whose buildup leads to Alzheimer’s in the brain, may also have served as the blueprint for larger, modern-day enzymes.”

Also this year, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) published results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reporting that they re-engineered a chain of amino acids in a type of dengue virus.

The UNC investigators think their research may not only provide a potential vaccine for dengue fever, but could also contribute to vaccine development for diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).