The best place to seek novel compounds for pharmaceutical drugs, alternative energy sources, and a host of industrial applications, is within natural systems that have evolved over millions of years. Scientists now realise that the precise molecular arrangements within natural pathways in organisms have been highly tuned for specific processes and provide both compounds that can be exploited directly and vital information over how to synthesise new products by mimicking biochemical processes. The bright future for research and development around such natural products was discussed recently at a conference organised by the European Science Foundaton (ESF), and the European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research (COST).

"We found that natural products provide invaluable leads for drug discovery and opportunities to explore chemical and biological pathways, both of which are essential to advancing the life sciences," said the conference chair K.C. Nicolaou from the Scripps Research Institute in the US. Some of the products discussed at the conference were ready for preclinical development, having shown great potential for treating a range of infectious and metabolic diseases as well as cancers.

Such products are creating excitement because they promise to combine more effective treatment with reduced side effects, as well exploiting clean non-toxic synthetic techniques. For example Maurizio Botta from the University of Sienna in Italy discussed the design, synthesis and biological evaluation of new compounds for tackling AIDS and HIV by inhibiting reverse transcriptase, the process by which this type of retrovirus virus hijacks the host cell's genetic machinery to replicate itself. Some of these compounds have already exhibited strong activity against the AIDS virus in the laboratory.

There were also a number of promising anti-bacterial agents presented at the conference, which is an important development given the growing resistance of some bacterial species to existing antibiotics and the growing problem posed by MRSA, the "super bug" that plagues many hospitals and nursing homes. Dionisios Vourloumis, research director at the state run Greek research centre NCSR Demokritos, explained how bacteria could be disabled by targeting the RNA binding molecules needed for their genes to be expressed.

It is important to distinguish between the highly specific compounds being developed by researchers in natural products, and existing herbal remedies that often have dubious therapeutic value. "The difference from herbal medicine is that chemists are talking about pure active ingredients, precisely defined at the molecular level, as opposed to crude, multi-component mixtures of compounds contained in herbal medicines," said Nicolaou.

Although, as Nicolaou emphasised, the main focus of the natural products field is on drug discovery and exploitation of biological pathways to treat disease, the synthetic processes involved also have great potential for developing novel products for a variety of industrial applications, particularly in the chemical industry. One active area of research lies in harnessing the reaction centres of photosynthesis to produce clean sustainable energy converted from the sun without using fossil fuels, just as plants do. This could either be done by engineering new types of plant or photosynthesising cyanobacteria, or mimicking these processes to synthesise artificial systems that perhaps are more convenient to deploy.

The synthetic strategies developed to synthesize natural products also have great potential for green chemistry, involving manufacture of compounds for different applications using sustainable techniques that reduce or eliminate toxic by-products, for example in the paper manufacturing industry. The overall focus was in harnessing the tools of chemistry to develop new techniques for synthesising organic compounds for a variety of purposes, with improved efficiency and sustainability.

The ESF-COST conference on Natural Products Chemistry, Biology and Medicine was held near Naples in Italy in May 2008.

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