The reaction simplifies the creation of the basic molecular framework found in many natural products and popular pharmaceuticals like some cholesterol-lowering drugs. Until now, synthesising this framework - an indole - was inefficient, requiring six to 10 steps and often producing toxic by-products.
Co-designer, Professor Mark Lautens of the University of Toronto said: "This new method only takes three steps and results in less waste."
Indoles are ring structures containing carbon and nitrogen. In this new process, the researchers used a metallic element as a catalyst to form two chemical bonds and create a diverse range of indole-containing compounds. These compounds could then be used to make drugs now on the market or form the basis of new therapeutic drugs.
Lautens said this new molecular-level technique could equal big savings and less environmental impact. "In order to make a hundred kilograms of these best-selling drugs, there are often hundreds of litres of solvent used, not to mention the many purification processes involved. Not only are you speeding up the process, you're also reducing waste and energy used in manufacturing."