In 2000, researchers from Chiba University in Japan and the University of Tokyo simultaneously discovered a compound in certain fungi that selectively destroyed cells depending upon a gene called ras - one of the first known cancer-causing genes. They had found rasfonin, a compound that seemed tailor-made to knock out ras-dependent cancers like pancreatic cancer.

After six years, however, rasfonin's secrets remain a mystery because researchers can't make enough of it to carry out tests. To bring about a new drug, organic chemists must produce a new chemical in enough quantity to test it under many different circumstances to tease out its modus operandi. Until now, no method existed to generate rasfonin, aside from growing more fungus - a time-consuming and terribly inefficient method.

Robert K. Boeckman, professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, has now revealed a process that produces 67 times more rasfonin than any previous method. For the first time, scientists can obtain enough rasfonin to conduct proper biological tests on it.

"At a guess, I'd say that rasfonin itself will not be the final compound that might come to market," says Boeckman. "But we need to figure out how it works, how it triggers cancer cells to shut itself down. The key is to find exactly what buttons rasfonin is pushing, and then figure out if there's a way we can safely and more simply push those same buttons. But we couldn't do that until we have enough to test."

Even Boeckman's simplified process is notably complex, employing sophisticated organic reactions. Instead of the original method's 23 steps, Boeckman's has just 16 - but finding them took five years of his team's hard work, skill and intuition. "Very soon, researchers should be able to scale up this process rather easily to whatever volume they need," says Boeckman. "It may be a long road to a possible treatment, but at least we're now past the first hurdle."

MEDICA.de; Source: University of Rochester