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Inspiring peopleElaine O'Reilly

New routes to drug discovery
Researcher in Industrial Biotechnology
Elaine O'Reilly
How would you explain your research?

Nature is capable of making so many complex materials and important medicinal products starting from a very simple and limited set of building blocks. It does this through the action of highly sophisticated catalysts, known as enzymes. As chemists, we often go to great lengths to design chemical catalysts that mimic the action of enzymes in order to help us synthesise similar complex materials.

Our group uses these catalysts directly to do chemistry. This means that we can avoid the use of costly, rare and often toxic metals, allowing us to perform chemical reactions in a "green" and sustainable manner.

However, sometimes the enzymes won’t perform the type of chemistry that we desire and they need to be modified. To do this, we often use a technique known as "directed evolution". This wonderful evolutionary strategy enables us to introduce random mutations into the DNA corresponding to the enzyme we would like to modify and essentially select the enzyme that has the new function that we seek. The strategy mimics the process of natural evolution and natural selection except we can do it in a few weeks rather than waiting thousands (or millions) of years.

Our goal is that the catalysts we design will open the door to new pharmaceutical drugs
What inspired you to pursue this area?

I was always fascinated with Darwinian evolution. The idea that we could use a similar strategy to design natural catalysts that enable us to do synthetically challenging chemistry was very appealing. Also, chemistry has a bit of a bad name as people often associate it with toxic chemicals and pollution.

Our goal is to limit the use of toxic or dangerous chemicals by using natural catalysts that operate at near ambient conditions in water. Using appropriately designed enzymes to do chemistry also allows us to design previously unthinkable routes to target compounds and should one day open the door to new and cost-effective pharmaceutical drugs.

How will your research affect the average person?

Our goal is that the catalysts we design will open the door to new pharmaceutical drugs we have not been previously able to access. Additionally, we should be able to access them in an extremely sustainable way using these benign catalysts. In many cases, we can use readily available and natural materials such as sugars to synthesise our desired materials using biocatalysis and these abundant and sustainable feedstocks will allow us to reduce our dependence on petrochemicals.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

My greatest achievement to date was securing my position at The University of Nottingham. It’s a fantastic place to work and a wonderful research environment.

I would like to go back to prehistoric times to when the first molecules and proteins were being formed
What advice would you give to someone starting out?

I think that it’s important to think about what the real challenges are in the field of biocatalysis and chemistry, and think about how your research interests and ideas can make a real impact. It’s getting more important nowadays to find application and commercial avenues for your research and this is something I would strongly recommend considering.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

I think we are becoming more and more aware of our impact on the environment, and as chemists, we need to make sure that we are designing sustainable and environmentally friendly synthetic routes and methodology.

If you could jump 100 years into the future, what’s the first thing you’d look up?

Have I won a Nobel Prize! I’m joking! Science and technology are moving at such an incredible rate there would be so much I would want to look up. However, it would have to be where we were as a race regarding war and world poverty. It’s hard to believe that we are advancing at such a dramatic rate scientifically yet our world is still plagued with terrible suffering. I would love to think that another 100 years is enough to see big changes but I would be "googling" with a certain degree of doubt.

If you could go back in time where would you go?

It could be dangerous, but with the right safety equipment I would like to go back to prehistoric times to when the first molecules and proteins were being formed. There’s so much we don’t understand about this period and more information would answer some fundamental chemistry questions that continue to baffle scientists.

Global Research Theme
Sustainable Societies

Research Priority Area
Industrial Biotechnology

Elaine O’Reilly is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Biology. She joined The University of Nottingham in 2015 after a PhD in organic chemistry at University College Dublin, followed by four years as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Manchester and a lectureship in Chemical Biology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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