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Catalyst research leads to internationally-recognised company producing chemicals for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries

Precise control of the structure of chemical compounds is critical to the design of new drug molecules. Molecules that are chiral, i.e. that cannot be superimposed on their mirror image, are particularly challenging to produce. The design of appropriate catalysts is critical to produce molecules with control over their chiral structures.

Research from the University of Liverpool has resulted in a new catalytic method for a safe and economically viable production of chiral compounds. This patented work is the basis of a spin out company founded in 2014, Liverpool ChiroChem (LCC), an internationally-recognised company specialising in producing chiral small molecules for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries 

The challenge

Chiral amines, particularly N-heterocycles, are critical building blocks in pharmaceutical synthesis and have been conventionally accessed by difficult and costly approaches. This limited the ability to use such building blocks.

Research action

Prof Jianliang Xiao’s team are designing optimised catalytic systems that make chemical synthesis considerably simpler and more cost effective. This work led to the discovery of a new chemical reaction, which they named asymmetric reductive transamination. The reaction produces, with exceptional enantioselectivities, chiral piperidines, the most widely used N-heterocycles in drug synthesis.

Unlike any other asymmetric reduction methods, which generally require high pressure hydrogen gas, special equipment and expensive chiral ligands, the new asymmetric reductive transamination reaction requires neither chiral ligands nor high pressure hydrogen gas, and proceeds under mild conditions with no need for any special equipment. This approach was protected and later published within a patent, which provided the critical competitive advantage for the creation of LCC.

Working in partnerships

LCC was setup in 2014 by Xiao and former University of Liverpool PhD students Dr Jianjun Wu, Dr Paul Colbon and Dr Jiwu Ruan. LCC is now a multinational company with sites in Taizhou in China and Liverpool in the UK. Its customers include more than 300 multinational pharma/biotechnology companies who regularly purchase these valuable building blocks for their new molecule discovery programmes.

Outputs and outcomes

LCC has raised over £6.5M in investment funding. It employs 17 people in the UK and over 40 in China and is projected to grow considerably in the next 2 years, expanding its employee count to a target 70-90. LCC market an online catalogue of >1000 chiral amine products derived from catalysis approaches first developed within the Xiao academic research group and expanded considerably by LCC researchers. The LCC catalogue has been built strategically focusing on N-heterocyclic compounds, which are the most important building blocks in pharmaceutical products, accounting for ca 60% of small-molecule drugs.

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