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, 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.

“That’s been the whole point of my research to date,” he said. “To take cheap things and make high-value materials that ultimately can be turned into pharmaceutical drugs.”

Dr. Kürti’s quest began when he first set up his lab at The University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center in 2010 with support from a Welch Foundation grant, and has continued since his move to Rice in 2015. His focus has been on simplifying the transfer of nitrogen atoms into molecules, 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.

Dr. Kürti’s group has developed an inexpensive organic synthesis technique that catalyzes the transfer of nitrogen atoms to olefins, unsaturated organic compounds also known as alkenes 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.

“My job as an academic is to discover new tools for the toolbox of synthetic organic chemistry,” he said. “It makes our reach much wider as we provide simpler, more sustainable reagents and methods that allow chemists to construct increasingly complex molecules to perform vital functions.”

Beyond his own work, Dr. Kürti appreciates Welch funding for “Fun with Chemistry,” a joint program of Rice and UT Austin. A dedicated group of Rice chemistry graduate students visit with K-12 classes to get them excited about chemistry. He reports that in the last two years, the program has reached 5,000 to 6,000 students in the greater Houston area.