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Pharma going green? Making Tylenol from plant material

Lead researchers John Ralph and Steve Karlen, who work at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, have been granted a patent for a novel method to synthesize acetaminophen from plant material.

Coal tar is currently used to create acetaminophen (various phenolic coal tar derivatives have analgesic properties), which is used in the common pain reliever and a fever reducer Tylenol. Coal tar is produced through thermal destruction (pyrolysis) of coal, and it is generally associated with use in dermatology. The method of creating coal tar involves the use of fossil fuels (it is a by-product of the production of coke and coal gas from coal).

With the new process, the immediate challenge faced is with lignin itself. The material is a very complex polymer and two molecules in a plant are exactly the same. The main complication for the researchers was how to break down the plant material into usable materials. The new process, which has been awarded a patent, describes how to effectively convert a molecule found on lignin into acetaminophen (N-acetyl-para-aminophenol). The chemical consists of a benzene ring core, substituted by one hydroxyl group and the nitrogen atom of an amide group in the para (1,4) pattern.

The method is based on running a short series of chemical reactions on plant biomass, which converts the molecule into acetaminophen. The success of this new process creates the opportunity for other pharmaceutical processes to move to a more sustainable form of pharmaceutical production, by making drugs from plants rather than from fossil fuels.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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