The goal of a pharmaceutical R&D organisation is to make a new chemical compound which has the right biological activity to be used in a medicine to treat patients. A crucial step in the process is to identify a "lead compound". This is a compound which interacts with the target biological receptor or enzyme and can act as a starting point for discovering a series of compounds which have the perfect biological profile. In this automated chemistry lab, the scientists make, analyse and purify tens of thousands of compounds for biological testing. By using automated equipment and developing efficient processes, the scientists can increase the number and quality of the compounds prepared.
Sometimes the chemists are unsure about what the essential features of the molecule are for it to be effective. Then they might make large numbers of different compounds with different structures, and therefore shapes, to see which are the most promising.
To create a large numbers of diverse compounds is very slow and laborious to make each one by hand. Robots that can do the same chemical reaction over and over again but using different starting materials are often used for this type of routine chemistry.
The work involves a team of scientists with different areas of expertise. Medicinal chemists decide which molecules to prepare and carry out the synthesis. Software programmers write scripts to enable the transfer of lots of data and to help the chemists design the molecules. Other scientists set up the robots to synthesise the compounds. Analytical chemists set up the equipment and methods to check the quality and to purify the compounds. The robots are housed in ventilated cabinets to ensure that the scientists are not exposed to any chemicals. When they first try out the reactions which will be used by the robots, the chemists prepare the compounds manually in fume cupboards.
To see some robots doing automated chemistry and some of the techniques used in combinatorial chemistry, view the video on the RSC's Alchemy Presentation.