Despite the pace of technology, the human touch is necessary when it comes to specialist areas. Organic synthesis is a complex field requiring expert knowledge and the experience to know what will work.
The production of small quantities of organic compounds for early-stage development is a lengthy and complicated process that is often outsourced to specialist companies. Such companies need to have experienced, expert staff to deal with the bewildering array of requests (see below).
Although technology is progressing rapidly and some people have predicted the day when human intervention will be obsolete, that day has not yet arrived. Moreover, technology is often used to supplement rather than supplant synthetic methods.
Organic synthesis involves a wide range of organic molecule transformations, and chemists must have the requisite theory and practical experience. To complicate matters, a successful reaction scheme for one compound is often not suitable for a seemingly closely related structure. Often, reactions that are not readily amenable to industrial scale-up are used.
Commonly used transformations include the classic Claisen, Stetter and Knoevenagel reactions, Diels-Alder and 1,3-dipolar cycloadditions, modern cross coupling reactions in all their variations, and protecting groups. Chemists must also handle catalysts for enantioselective synthesis, enzymatic transformations and a concatenation of organometallic reagents and reactions.
Modern software-driven instrumentation is rapidly simplifying these tasks. Literature can be accessed at a moment's notice by computer, virtually every instrument used in the laboratory is computer-aided and routine, time-consuming tasks, such as chromatography, can often be delegated to a machine.
Predictions have often been made that technology or new approaches will replace classic organic synthesis. One day, robots may be able to perform operations now carried out by hand, biotechnological approaches could replace classic organic synthesis and enantioselective catalysts, both synthetic and enzymic, could prepare the proper enantiomer of any compound, rendering organic chemistry and chemists obsolete.
However, chemists have not been replaced yet, nor does it seem likely that they will be any time soon. New techniques have supplemented and enlarged the arsenal of synthetic methods rather than replacing them. More and better methodology actually increases the opportunity to prepare the endless variations of organic compounds with desired properties.
Computer-assisted techniques aid organic synthesis enormously and biotechnological approaches are becoming increasingly important in this area. For example, (catalytic) enantioselective synthesis is often used to prepare certain intermediates that will then go into complicated synthetic schemes. The field of organic synthesis is growing thanks to new methods, which means that demand for new structures is increasing in line with the sophistication of those methods.
An outsourcing company specialising in organic synthesis has the opportunity to concentrate this complex mixture of technique and knowledge in the hands of experts. The human touch is, and will remain, indispensable. Organic synthesis is an area where technology meets art.
Syncom BV is located in Groningen, the Netherlands, and has rapidly grown to its current size of 115 organic chemists. The company specialises in all types of organic synthesis up to about a kilogram. Chiral synthesis is a speciality and Dutch Resolution is a well-known patented method discovered at Syncom for resolutions of racemic compounds.