Fluorine - the medicinal chemist's magic element

13 Nov 2013

A new one-day research meeting organised by the Young Chemists' Panel will highlight recent research into one of the hottest topics in organic chemistry - the synthesis and properties of organofluorine compounds.

Research into the chemistry of fluorine has come a long way since the early days of the 'fluorine martyrs', the 19th century chemists who were killed or seriously hurt while working with fluorine, including Davy and Gay-Lussac. These days synthetic chemists are understandably adverse to handling the Tyrannosaurus Rex of elements and instead rely on a new generation of safe-to-handle reagents for the introduction of fluorine into their molecules.

In recent years the development of new methodologies to allow fluorine incorporation into organic molecules has blossomed, but why do chemists want to use fluorine so much anyway? 'Modern Synthetic Methods in Organofluorine Chemistry' to be held in London on Tuesday 6 March 2014 will highlight recent advances in this important field of research.

The modern day drug-designer has many tools at his or her disposal to improve the physical and biological properties of a lead compound. One of the most potentially important changes is to introduce one or more fluorine atoms at advantageous positions in the lead molecule. Fluorine is the most electronegative of the elements, but is also relatively small in size, which means that replacing, say, a hydrogen atom with a fluorine atom can have profound electronic effects on a molecule without greatly changing its overall size.

Thus the properties of a molecule, such as the basicity of an amino group, can be finely tuned by judicious incorporation of a fluorine. Every medicinal chemist requires a good appreciation of the potential benefits a little bit of fluorine can bring. The fact that 20% of drugs and 35% of agrochemicals contain fluorine underlines the importance of organofluorine chemistry to modern organic chemistry. Just as important is the role fluorine can play in diagnostic medicine, with tracer molecules containing the radioactive isotope 18F finding heavy use in PET (Positron emission tomography) imaging.

Of course, drawing a molecule with carefully placed fluorine groups, positioned to bring about a well calculated benefit to the properties of a compound is one thing. Actually going into the lab and making the compound is another.

Fluorine is the thirteenth most abundant element in the Earth's crust; however natural products containing fluorine are remarkably scarce. There are only 13 known naturally occurring fluorinated organic compounds, meaning the synthetic chemist has little in the way of useful building blocks to start a synthesis with. There is often little option but to 'bolt in' the fluorine group by-hand.

Most chemists will understandably shy away from using hydrogen fluoride as their source or fluorine, preferring less ferocious and easier to use, shelf-stable reagents. There is an undiminishing need for such new reagents and methodologies that allow reliable and predictable incorporation of fluorine groups into organic molecules.

The 'Modern Synthetic Methods in Organofluorine Chemistry' meeting will be of great interest to chemists working in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical fields, as well as synthetic organic chemists with a general interest in organofluorine chemistry.

The meeting features talks by leading academics from the UK and Europe - Prof Veronique Gouverneur, Prof David O'Hagan, Prof Graham Sandford, and Prof Antonio Togni from ETH Zurich will be presenting as well as industrial speakers from the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries: Dr Steve Swallow from AstraZeneca and Dr Jon Dallimore from Syngenta.

The event is being supported by Alfa Aesar, Apollo Scientific and Fluorochem.

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