Laszlo Kurti

Principal Investigator
Rice University

László Kürti is on a mission. He wants to make drug development simpler, faster and less expensive – and he’s succeeding.

Earlier this year, in a landmark paper published in Nature Catalysis (https://rdcu.be/b17rX), he detailed the latest in a series of breakthroughs that will allow chemists to make valuable pharmaceutical precursors from inexpensive, widely available materials at room temperature. Done without using metal catalysts, the process is also more environmentally friendly.

His focus has been on simplifying the transfer of nitrogen atoms, traditionally one of the hardest and most expensive steps in the drug-discovery process.

“Most people thought my research was too simple and argued that if it worked, someone would already have discovered it,” he laughed. “That’s where Welch funding is invaluable – it lets me pursue ideas that others don’t find credible.”

With nitrogen found in 80 percent of pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, Dr. Kürti focuses his work on aziridines. These strained triangular structures contain two carbon atoms and a nitrogen atom that are interconnected and are valued as convenient synthetic building blocks as they can be readily combined with suitable reaction partners to make more complex structures. He has developed an inexpensive organic synthesis technique that catalyzes the transfer of nitrogen atoms to olefins, unsaturated organic compounds that are inexpensive and widely available.

“The process is so simple,” he said, “that you don’t need any chemical background to carry it out – just mix and stir the components in a flask.”