The toughest chemistry challenge ever?

Huddersfield University scientist Dr Duncan Gill has won a new research grant to tackle one of chemistry’s biggest puzzles

Dr Gill will work on a method for synthesising the aconitine molecule, and receives £133,481 from the Leverhulme Trust for the project. It will enable him to appoint a full-time post-doctoral researcher.

Aconitine, a notorious poison mentioned by Shakespeare and fatally taken by Romeo, is produced by the aconitum plant, also known as monkshood or wolf’s bane.

“It is an extremely potent neurotoxin, but the way that it interacts with nerve cells means aconitine and its analogues are useful chemical tools to probe neurological phenomena at the molecular level. It is also interesting in terms of its relevance to new medicines,” explains Dr Gill. “A chemical synthesis of this molecule will allow us to make novel analogues that are unknown in nature, and impossible to make by chemical modification of aconitine itself – we have to start from scratch.”

With of the sheer complexity of the molecule, synthesising aconitine is a huge challenge. Despite many attempts dating back to the 1970s, no scientist has yet succeeded in doing so. “It has an incredibly intricate structure: it’s like nature’s version of a Swiss watch. We will need to develop new chemical methods to tackle the problem, but these will be more widely applicable to other targets,” says Dr Gill.

Duncan Gill was appointed Senior Research Fellow at the University in 2011, prior to which he was a process chemist and Global Catalysis Group Leader at multinational pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, working closely with medicinal chemistry teams to design innovative and sustainable routes to new pharmaceutical compounds.

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