Turning particular screws on the engine - sparking a reaction in specific sites on the molecule - has been a time-consuming challenge for chemists, he said. Miller's group has devised a catalyst that makes it easier to spark a localized reaction - and thus promises to speed production of complex molecules used in the making of pharmaceuticals.
"In a sense, chemists are like mechanics - but standing in the next room, throwing a wrench over and hoping it lands on the right nut or bolt," Miller said.
"We're getting the wrench to land on the right nut or bolt, in some cases, with precision."
He and his group discovered a new and relatively simple catalyst, a "penta-peptide" of five amino acids, the building blocks of enzymes that spark chemical reactions. The innovation, cited in the Dec. 13 Nature, is seen aiding in the more efficient production of pharmaceutical drugs.
Miller has crafted a distinguished record since joining the Boston College
faculty five years ago, winning a Sloan Fellowship and several awards recognizing
excellence by young chemists in research and teaching.
He hopes research done in his lab may lead one day to the cheaper and more widespread manufacture of drugs to treat a range of human illnesses, from AIDS to the common cold.
"Life-saving drugs are very expensive to discover and produce," he said. "We rarely see cases of expensive drugs applied in the Third World, because the cost of drugs is too high."
His field can help speed discovery of new drugs while cutting their cost to manufacture and distribute, said Miller.
"One of the exciting aspects of pharmaceutical research is you have the opportunity to impact a broad spectrum of human health," he said.
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