Natural product synthesis: one step closer to entering your medicine cabinet


Molecules isolated from natural sources have a wide range of biological effects: caffeine in coffee gives you an energy boost, morphine from poppy seeds alleviates pain and muscarine in fly agarics is a dangerous poison

To study and apply such natural products as medicine, we have to synthesise them in the laboratory.

In his organic chemistry PhD thesis, Juha Siitonen from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, has focused on syntheses of natural products isolated from Stemona- and Cephalotaxus-plants.

Stemona-derived natural products have a wide variety of applications, ranging all the way from antitussive effects to insecticidal properties.

Cephalotaxus natural products, by contrast, have proven effective against cancer.

”Half of world’s drugs are either natural products or take their inspiration from natural products. For example, willow tree bark contains salicylic acid, which is a precursor to aspirin,” Siitonen points out.

Serves pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries

The PhD thesis presents synthetic pathways to three different Stemona natural products, as well as a significantly shorter method to access the core structure of Cephalotaxus natural products.

Several new synthetic methods had to be developed to accomplish these goals. In the future, the developed methods can find use in synthesis of new drugs, agrochemicals as well as new materials.

“Molecular structures of natural products are intriguing. The complex structures can be seen as synthetic challenges that very quickly reveal the shortcomings and limitations of our current methods for chemical synthesis,” Siitonen explains.

Juha Siitonen graduated from Parikkala high-school in 2009. The same year he started his studies at the University of Jyvaskyla and graduated with an MSc in 2014.

Since then, he has worked as a PhD student in professor Petri Pihko’s group at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Jyvaskyla.

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During his PhD studies, Siitonen spent 5 months in professor Peter Somfai’s group at the Lund University, Sweden. In January 2019 he starts as a Wiess postdoctoral fellow in professor László Kürti’s group at Rice University, USA.