We asked Professor Nicholas Turner, co-coordinator of CHEM21 for the University of Manchester, to explain the structure and principles of the project

Simone Montonati

An extensive European project dedicated to sustainability in pharmaceutical manufacturing has now reached the mid-point: it goes by the name of CHEM21, the title of which points at the aim of the project: to provide new chemical-transformation methods for the pharmaceutical industry of the 21st century.


“The focus of the project is to develop sustainable methods for the production of pharmaceuticals – Nicholas Turner says. – We essentially designed five work packages (WP): work package 1, essentially defines the problems and try to understand the state of the art of green chemical methods in pharmaceutical production. The WP 2,3 and 4 are about new technologies development: work package two is about metal catalysis but involving non transition metals, package three is about bio-catalysis, package four is on synthetic biology. Work package five is about training methods for future generation scientists in green chemistry. We needed all five work packages, not only about research and development but also understating the problem and designing training packages to train next generation of scientists. The five work packages have to be integrated, also to bring together academic and industrial members to form a very large and extensive consortium, with the required expertise needed to try to solve these problems”.

From this point of view, what is the role of big companies and of SMEs in the project?

“The large companies belong to an organization, the EFPIA – European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations – and they define what they would like to see in terms of proposals from the academic community. Their first role is to define the problem in terms of green methods for pharmaceutical manufacturing and then invite people to provide solutions against set targets. The development takes place initially in the academic groups, but when the technology is ready for the testing, they are tested by the pharmaceutical companies in their laboratories. They provide the feedback to improve the design of the methods. The aim is to apply few methods in the companies to manufacture the specific targets. SMEs along the academic groups provide the potential solutions, then they go to the company for testing. The way the financing works is that the EU (by the IMI) funds the academic research and in the SMEs and the companies fund their own research. It is like a public-private partnership. Therefore, there are people working in the academic groups and the SMEs funded by the EU (the IMI) and there are also people deployed by the companies to work alongside them”.

What are in your opinion the most promising aspects of the research about the sustainable Chemistry?

“In our Centre in Manchester our expertise is mainly in biocatalysis and synthetic biology. We have a long history of collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, but I think in the last five years technology has become more interesting for other members of the chemical industry including energy, fine chemicals, flavors, fragrances, materials. I think it is a very broad technology that can be applied to any chemical industry. It is a new way of producing chemicals: sustainable, low energy, low cost, low environmental impact”.

The funds have been allocated for the project through a public-private collaboration between pharmaceutical companies and the European Union, which co-funds the initiative through the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP7).

Professor Turner, how do you rate the contribution that the European Commission is providing to the sustainability of chemical processes in terms of general policies and which level has reached Europe compared to the rest of the world, in your opinion?

“I think this is a very high-priority for the European Commission: we had a lot of funding from the EC in this area, not just from IMI, but also from the FP7 and Horizon2020. I think the EU is a major player, probably because the chemical industry is so strong in Europe, and I think that what you are seeing is the result of lobbying by the chemical industry: by BASF, DSM, the farmer companies, the agro-chemical companies. They constitute a significant portion of the manufacturing industry in Europe and I am not sure you appreciate how it is important that this activity remains in Europe and does not go elsewhere. I think what you are seeing is a really sustained activity by the European Community to try and make sure we stay at the leading edge of this kind of research so that our academics and our industrialists are highly competitive globally in sustainable chemistry”.


The size of the project

CHEM21-banner-20120207CHEM 21 brings together the largest public-private consortium in Europe committed to the issue of sustainability of chemical processes. The working group is composed of 23 partners from eight different countries: six pharmaceutical companies, 13 universities and four small or medium enterprises. The project has a couple of leaders formed by the University of Manchester and the English division of Glaxo-SmithKline, and includes, among other participants, Bayer Pharma Deutschland, UK Pfizer, Sanofi Chimie France and the University of Graz, Stuttgart and Leeds. The research, which will last four years and will end in August 2016, will have a total budget of 21.1 million pounds (approximately 26.4 million euro) entirely financed by IMI (Innovative Medicines Initiative). IMI is the largest European public-private initiative dedicated to the development of the more effective and safer drugs; its resources come from members of EFPIA (European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations) and the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7 – the EU program dedicated to research and innovation for the period 2007_2013).


The first results

After two years, the project begins to produce the first results. The work package 1, which aims to map the more advanced stages of European pharmaceutical industry and to define the main challenges for 2020, has already produced an impressive work of analysis: the researchers reviewed over 300 documents related to chemical processes, 52 articles dedicated to discoveries in the chemical and pharmaceutical sector and over 6000 projects by members of EFPIA. This survey identified a clear need for stakeholders to push the sustainability of the processes through appropriate measurement tools, effective systems of education and training and a greater reliance on biotechnology.

Instead, the activities of training and education (WP5), started establishing the Young Researchers Network (YRN), created to ease the sharing of experiences, opinions and scientific knowledge between PhD’s and postdocs. The organization, which already includes more than 40 members, does most of its work through a web-community but the participants have the opportunity to meet up at two workshops organized in York (UK) and Graz (Austria). A next meeting, dedicated to the use of biocatalysts, is scheduled for April 2015 in Stuttgart.