Raina Pang
Feb 22, 2012

Green pharmaceuticals: Safety, environment and economics

Pills with hand‘Green’ may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of pharmaceuticals, but, recently, drug companies have been committing to more environmentally sustainable practices. Because the business world of pharmaceuticals obviously favors economics over environment, the commitment to sustainability agendas by pharmaceutical companies may sound like a simple public relations move. However, green chemistry minimizes waste and resource use, which results in reduced costs of production. This means that green pharma can be both environmentally and economically beneficial. Regardless of the underlying motive, it does appear that pharmaceutical companies are getting on board with green pharma, as is reflected in the growth of the American Chemical Society/Green Chemistry Institute’s Pharmaceutical Roundtable, which grew from three corporations during its founding year in 2005 to 18 corporations in 2011.

Green pharmaceutical practices stem from the principles of green chemistry, which focuses on more environmentally friendly and sustainable chemical reactions. The result of green chemistry is a reduction in waste, safer chemical output and reduced pollution and environmental damage. To meet these goals, scientists must innovate on chemical processes.

Researchers use visible light to catalyze a reaction.Reducing energy consumption is a major focus of the sustainable movement. One way that drug developers can reduce energy consumption is through more efficient use of light. Most organic compounds do not efficiently absorb visible light, meaning that chemists generally use energy-guzzling UV light if they need light to catalyze a reaction. Researchers led by Dr. Nan Zheng at the University of Arkansas found a way to utilize visible light in the development of organic compounds. The use of ruthenium, a metal that is active in visible light, created organic molecules using only visible light -- in their case, a cheap supermarket light bulb. This production is environmentally favorable as visible light greatly reduces the energy requirement of the reaction. Furthermore, this reaction generated no waste and required no additives or cocatalysts. This process is a great first step in making organic molecules with less energy and ongoing research attempts to use visible light to create organic compounds with carbon-nitrogen bonds.

Another important factor in the greening of pharmacy is increasing the safety of production. Last year, Wei Zhang at the University of Massachusetts Boston was awarded a grant from the American Chemical Society/Green Chemistry Institute’s Pharmaceutical Roundtable to investigate greener solvents for the Grignard reaction, a reaction used in the production of numerous pharmaceuticals such as the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. But, the reaction, discovered 100 years ago, uses volatile metal magnesium and flammable solvents such as ether. It is just one of many methods that may be improved through further research.

Greening the practices of pharmacy just makes sense. It improves sustainability, it increases public favorability and it can cut costs of production. While the incorporation of these practices into pharmaceutical production is still not complete, the use of green chemistry has greatly improved the development of a variety of pharmaceutical drugs. Hopefully, increased focus on this topic will spur further innovation resulting in improved practices in drug manufacturing and disposal. This type of innovation is essential as reports of the negative impact of pharmaceutical waste continues to emerge.