Colorado State University Discovery Published in Science Could Significantly Speed Up Drug Discovery

Note to Reporters: A photo of Tomislav Rovis in his laboratory is available with the news release at

What happens when you make two things that weren’t meant to be together fall in love?

You publish a paper in Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, especially when the discovery could revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry.

Colorado State University Chemistry Professor Tomislav Rovis and his fifth-year doctoral student Todd Hyster, in collaboration with Professor Thomas R. Ward and Livia Knörr at the University of Basel, have produced an artificial enzyme made of metal and organic matter – two things that have not previously bonded for that purpose. The new enzyme could allow scientists to build many more complicated molecules necessary for creating drugs and cut months of work into days.

The researchers took a transition metal from the periodic table known as rhodium and combined it with mutated streptavidin, which is a protein similar to the protein found in egg whites and bonded it to biotin (vitamin H). The complex reacts with non-activated carbon-hydrogen bonds to give scientists something they can manipulate.

The research appears in today’s edition of Science. Funding for the research was provided by the National Institutes of Health.

“The focus we’re applying is to make more complicated molecules faster for things that have the potential to impact human health,” Rovis said. “With drug discovery, you take something from nature and change it so it fits a target or the problem you’re trying to solve. That process – to identify the effective compounds – can take weeks or months to identify.

“Our chemistry can be applied to make some of these more complicated targets quicker. In essence, it should allow researchers to cut the discovery process from months down to days.”

In his laboratory, Rovis uses small organic molecules to create tools or catalysts that make more elaborate molecules for pharmaceuticals that could lead to treatments for cancer and other diseases. This is a critical piece of research-and-development for pharmaceutical companies that must create and test thousands of molecules to fashion new drugs.

“Enzymes are catalysts that do things in our bodies, and they’re really good at it. What we’ve been able to do is make that enzyme artificial by putting a different metal in it,” Hyster said. “The enzyme and metal work together to facilitate a variety of transformations that your body couldn’t normally do.”

In 2010, Roche, a leading pharmaceutical company, honored Rovis and his doctoral student, Daniel DiRocco, for their research accomplishments as next-generation chemists. Rovis was one of only two professors nationally honored by the company. Colorado State University’s graduate program in chemistry is considered one of the top 50 in the country.