A new study by two Israeli researchers details a breakthrough technological achievement that allows drug companies to significantly lower the amount of unwanted side effects.

Chemical compounds are made up of molecules. The most important molecules in biology are chiral molecules. “Chiral,” the Greek word for “hand,” describes molecules that look almost exactly alike and contain the same number of atoms but are mirror images of one another—meaning some are “left-handed” and others are “right-handed.” It is this difference that determines the biological effects of the molecule.

Understanding chiral differences was made painfully clear by the drug thalidomide. Marketed to pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s to ease morning sickness, thalidomide worked well under a microscope. However, thalidomide is a chiral drug –its “right” chiral molecule provides nausea relief while the “left” molecule causes horrible deformities in babies. Since the drug company producing thalidomide did not separate out the right and left molecules, thalidomide had disastrous results for the children of women who took it.

Though a crucial step for drug safety, the separation of chiral molecules into their right- and left-handed components is an expensive process and demands a tailor-made approach for each type of molecule. Now, however, following a decade of collaborative research, Prof. Yossi Paltiel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Ron Naaman from the Weizmann Institute of Science have discovered a uniform, generic method that will enable pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturers to easily and cheaply separate right from left chiral molecules.

“Our finding has great practical importance”, shared Prof. Naaman. “It will usher in an era of better, safer drugs, and more environmentally-friendly pesticides”. Prof. Paltiel added, “We are now transforming our science into practice, with the help of Weizmann’s and the Hebrew University’s technology transfer companies. Placing better medical and environmental products on the market is a win-win for industry and for patients.”