On ingenuity

You have to admire drug dealers. Not for their ruthless savagery, moral depravity, or social uselessness, but rather for their ingenuity.

In comparison, I have colleagues in synthetic organic chemistry who are masters of the art (and synthetic organic chemistry is indeed an art). They spend lifetimes learning arcane reactions and coming up with elegant new transformations, all so that they can sculpt carbon and other elements into whatever molecules they want. Of course, this is big business, too, because the best artists can develop shorter, easier, cheaper syntheses of drugs, and in so doing can vastly reduce the costs of goods for the pharmaceutical industry. Even better, these wizards can make compounds never seen before, and can thereby potentially create new drugs.

As an example, my colleague Phil Magnus recently developed a quite brilliant synthesis of certain opioid intermediates, a synthesis that cuts several steps off of previously published syntheses. It seems likely that Phil’s synthesis will now prove useful for making Alzheimer’s drugs much more cheaply.

Now, some drugs do not just heal the chemistry of the body, they alter the chemistry of the brain. They are addictive. Without getting into whether addictions (and wars on addictions) are in and of themselves a good or a bad thing, they are nonetheless intensely profitable things. And the good old invisible hand of Adam Smith thereby drives ingenuity, whether that ingenuity is turned to good ends or otherwise.

So it occurred to me to ask whether or not this new synthesis might lead to the street production of opioids. Initially, I thought this was one of my less productive thought experiments. How could your average thug possibly reproduce what was done by my brilliant colleague and a cohort of highly trained students working in a state-of-the-art research lab? But I was curious, and this brings me full circle to my first sentence. It is amazing what not your average thug, but say a mid-level thug, can do. Take meth labs. A much simpler synthesis than the one for opioids, but still: Birch reductions with the lithium from batteries! Wow. Collection of adequate quantities of starting material by hiring armies of street people to overcome restrictions on the sale of pseudophedrine. Perhaps morally bankrupt, but still ingenious.

So, I reverse engineered Phil’s synthesis a bit, and … I think it’s still not a go for the street (see Magnusc, although I have removed the summary slide that summarizes “Andy’s bathtub synthesis of opioids;” I’ll just leave that one safely behind the curtain).

Nonetheless, the thought exercise was useful on another level, one that relates to other posts. If the invisible hand can make thugs into synthetic organic chemists of a sort … why would this not make street synthetic biologists, the “DIY Bio” crowd, a force to be reckoned with? My opinion of the current DIY Bio community is that it’s more than a bit laughable. But that is likely precisely because they are motivated only by curiosity, and not by screaming self-interest. Once synthetic biology is shown to produce an actual product, something that makes money, then there will be more than enough motivation for a host of imitations, innovations, and bastardizations.

And that perhaps is the only reason that I sometimes revise my own estimation of synthetic biology as a security threat. Usually I rank it really, really low on the totem. But every now and again I think: If gigantic pots of money can lead to quite sophisticated submersibles being built in jungles to run drugs into our country, then what will happen when similar pots of money are available to those who figure out how to make genes on the fly?


- originally posted on Saturday, September 25th, 2010