Antibiotic tablets

The common antibiotic amoxicillin is among the many drugs based on a chemical structure called a lactam. Credit: David Holbrook/Alamy

Organic chemistry

A metal catalyst for speedier drug production

A custom-made compound fills a gap in chemists’ tool kit.

An innovative catalyst quickly assembles a chemical structure common in antibiotics and anti-tumour compounds.

Chemists have designed a variety of metal-based catalysts that strip a hydrogen atom from a chemical skeleton and replace it with a nitrogen atom. But catalysts for building nitrogen-containing structures called lactams have remained out of reach, probably because an intermediate compound easily decomposes into the wrong structure.

A team led by Mu-Hyun Baik and Sukbok Chang at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology’s Institute for Basic Science in Daejeon customized an iridium-based catalyst by decorating it with molecules that maximize its lactam-forming ability. The catalyst is so efficient that competing reactions are thwarted. The catalyst successfully transformed several widely available molecules, including some with complicated structures, into lactams.

The find could enable more-efficient synthesis of drugs.