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Prof R B Sunoj from IIT Bombay awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize 2019 for his research on organic chemical reactions

Prof Raghavan B Sunoj of the Department of Chemistry of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay has received the 2019 Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize by Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The prize recognizes his outstanding contributions for providing molecular level insights on organic reaction mechanisms.

The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize recognises exemplary research in the country and the honour is a testimonial to the breakthrough research at Prof Sunoj’s lab. The award, named after the founder director of CSIR, Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, consists of ₹5,00,000 prize money, a citation plaque and a fellowship of ₹15,000 per month until the age of 65.

Prof Sunoj dedicates this award to his family, students, and friends. He is thankful to IIT Bombay for setting up supercomputers in the campus, that made it possible for him and his team to pursue research in computational chemistry of global visibility. “As a human, naturally, I feel very good. As a scientist, I feel even better, as such accomplishments would serve a motivation to generations of younger students of today,” says an elated Prof Sunoj.

Prof Sunoj and his group work on understanding chemical reactions, and how catalysts and other external factors influence a chemical reaction. They use computational methods to predict the outcome of reactions in organic chemistry.

Most industrial catalysts are metal-based inorganic compounds. Even though they are present in small proportions, their residues could cause product contamination and even pollute the environment. Small organic molecules, such as an amino acid known as proline, could become promising alternatives as catalysts. “These catalysts can minimize environmental impact, even when used on an industrial scale, as the contaminant would be a naturally occurring amino acid. Some such organic catalysts are used for the synthesis of drugs such as Tamiflu for various forms of influenza,” explains Prof Sunoj.

Molecules have a three-dimensional arrangement of atoms. A methane molecule, for example, is tetrahedral and sulphur hexafluoride is octahedral. Sometimes, although the constituent atoms of a molecule are the same, they may be arranged in shapes that cannot be superimposed on each other. Such molecules are called chiral molecules and the different forms are called enantiomers. Some molecules could have enantiomers that are mirror images of each other, or exist in left-handed or right-handed chirality. These have very different chemical properties, when exposed to a chiral environment such as a biological target; one form could be medicinal while the other could be poisonous! For example, one form of dihydroxy phenylalanine (L-DOPA) is effective in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease while the other chiral form (D-DOPA) is biologically inactive.

“It is important to realize that biological targets, such as an enzyme in a pathogenic organism, are inherently chiral,” comments Prof Sunoj. Just like a handshake is not possible with a left and a right hand and needs the right hands of both persons, a drug would be effective against a target only when its molecular structure is compatible with the target. So one must use drug compounds with high purity of its handedness.

Prof Sunoj and his team explore why some chemical reactions generate more of a certain handedness than the other. They are looking at designing catalytic reactions that favour molecules of a specific handedness. “We can use this knowledge in the design of new and improved catalytic reactions for making pharmaceutically important compounds,'' says Prof Sunoj.

Computational methods enable newer discoveries and could make the existing process more efficient. Chemical reactions involving catalysts are required everywhere, from the automobile industry to drug manufacturing as well as in laboratories. The natural resources that are sources of currently used metal-based catalysts are depleting fast, hence we should continue to work on developing alternative catalysts. We should also try to minimize the trial and error attempts in the discovery workflow, especially for industrial research. “Computational tools can help prediction driven research that would save time and cost,” says Prof Sunoj.

Understanding how various catalysts work at the molecular level is a valuable knowledge for developing new catalysts. “Newer catalysts, with improved efficiencies, are always in high demand. Benefits of efficient processes lead to lower cost and less environmental impact, which can help improve the quality of life in many ways, and thus the society at large. Hence, research in catalysis continues to remain an active endeavour,” concludes Prof Sunoj. 

Article written by

Arati Halbe

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Indian Institute of Technology Bombay

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