A great example of this is taxol. Taxol is an amazing anticancer compound that is in current clinical use. It was discovered as a constituent of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia). The problem is that the Pacific yew tree is killed in the process of harvesting taxol, making this source unsustainable. Seeing its potential to help save lives, synthetic organic chemists tried to recreate this molecule from cheaply and readily available materials. After many years of many teams of scientists trying to create this molecule from scratch, few succeeded. Those that did succeed involved complicated multiple step procedures that require the use of large amounts of solvents and sometimes very expensive catalysts. Needless to say, these methods would never be commercially viable. So how is taxol available for use in cancer patients today? The answer is a compromise: A related yew tree (Taxus baccata) produces a similar compound in its needles, making its harvest sustainable. Once isolated, just a few synthetic modifications transformed this related molecule into taxol. This is called “semi-synthesis”. I suppose the fact that some amount of synthesis was required in the end would indicate that synthetic chemistry can never be fully obsolete. Perhaps when it comes to inventing new medicine, synthetic chemistry will always have a place.
However, I agree with Dr. Robin D. Rogers, who authored the article Eliminating The Need For Chemistry, published in last month’s issue of Chemical & Engineering News, in the overall need to move away from synthetic chemistry where possible. In his article, Dr. Rogers calls for a transformation in how the chemical industry thinks. Instead of thinking in terms of making (and selling) chemicals, he suggests that chemists figure out how to find and isolate biological sources of needed materials (using a water bottle as an example).
As I read through the article I could not help but think of the role that industrial hemp could play in such a transformation. Hemp is a great source of cellulose (the outer, long, strong bast fibers are made primarily of cellulose), hemicellulose, oils, terpenes, and other materials that could be used as a major part of this transformation. Beyond its material benefits, industrial hemp can be grown right here in the U.S. and provide thousands of jobs for Americans. This transformation would require many skilled people to develop and manufacture these biologically sourced materials. This, again, can be done in America.
I fully support Dr. Roger’s call for a transformation from synthetic materials to biologically based materials. We need to work hard to make sure that industrial hemp can play the role it should in this transformation. This year, the National Hemp Association is making a big push for Federal legalization of industrial hemp. We should all support that effort so this plant can live up to its full potential and provide a new source of materials and opportunity for the American people.