Green chemistry pharmaceuticals launched in Pfizer's Groton labs going worldwide

The greening of Pfizer Inc.'s pharmaceutical development started at the turn of the 21st century in Groton with the help of Yale University professor Paul Anastas, co-author of the "Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry."

The idea was to use enzymes instead of solvents to create drugs in a cheaper, less wasteful, safer, more environmentally friendly manner. It was an idea that appealed to Pfizer executives, who invited Anastas to visit their Groton laboratories in 2001 to discuss how the principles could be put into practice at a large pharmaceutical company.

"The receptivity, the enthusiasm, the creativity — it was palpable," Anastas recalled in a phone interview last week.

As Anastas remembered, his appearance in Groton was a moment of "forehead-slapping realization" that the goals of green chemistry perfectly aligned with the pharmaceutical industry's desire to "target molecules more efficiently and selectively." Economic, scientific and environmental goals could all be met simultaneously with the use of green chemistry, he said.

Juan Colberg, a Groton-based senior director at Pfizer, said the seed Anastas planted that day has since spanned the pharmaceutical world. A report by Navigant Research estimates that green chemical processes will save the industry $65.5 billion by 2020, not to mention reducing water use, cutting carbon-dioxide emissions and producing safer products.

"Green chemistry in Pfizer started here in Connecticut, and now it's all around the world," Colberg said in a conference call.

One of the recent pushes by the 10-member Green Chemistry Team in Groton, Colberg said, is to reduce the need for precious metals in chemical reactions. Dean Mastrojohn, a Pfizer spokesman, said the company has been saving significants amounts of money by using cheaper metals such as iron, nickel and copper instead of the much more costly palladium and platinum. 

Besides being more cost effective, the new techniques also use less water because the materials are less toxic, and acquiring materials is less cumbersome because nonprecious metals are easier to mine. Access to rare materials is a particular worry in geopolitical hotspots such as South Africa, Colberg said.

"This is one of the major issues we have right now," he said.

Mastrojohn cited a metal catalysis project run out of Groton that used iron instead of palladium, which dramatically reduced the carbon footprint of production, cut water use by hundreds of thousands of liters for every kilogram of metal used and was able to be run at room temperature rather than 158 degrees, saving energy costs.

Last year, Pfizer reported reducing company-wide water use by 9 percent and lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent compared with the year before.

"Pfizer is doing some of the most complex and elegant chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry," Anastas said. "They're in a leadership position. They're able to really move things forward."

Pfizer was one of the original pharmaceutical firms to join the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Roundtable, which Colberg currently serves as co-chairman. Colberg said many of the advancements in green chemistry are being done in a "pre-competitive space," meaning that companies will often share their advances with one another.

But Anastas said he can foresee instances in which green-chemistry ideas will become a competitive advantage and companies will choose not to share their intellectual property.

"And that's just fine," he said. "I really find it exciting — a race to the top ... this is a wonderful situation, I think."

In the past, said Colberg, Pfizer was forced to completely rethink the production of such drugs as Lipitor and Lyrica — originally designed without the benefits of green chemistry — in order to reduce costs and improve efficiency. But now green chemistry has been integrated into the very fabric of the company, with every Pfizer research site having its own Green Chemistry Team, trained either at the Groton laboratories or by local scientists who have traveled worldwide to spread the word, Colberg said.

And while green chemistry has been important to improving production efficiencies and speeding the development of new medicines at Pfizer's Groton laboratories, it is the rest of the world that has seen the most profound environmental effect of developments started here. That's because it is the manufacturing of medicines — no longer done in Groton on a large scale — that leads to the biggest environmental effects.

Still, Groton is the intellectual linchpin of Pfizer's green chemistry movement, a place where many of the initial production experiments occur in an attempt to produce medicines as efficiently and safely as possible.

As Colberg said, "We look at green chemistry right from the beginning."

The good news, said Anastas, speaking the day after Earth Day, is that other industries have taken up the mantle as well.

"It's almost impossible for me to name a sector that isn't using green chemistry," he said. "And yet with all the success stories, we're just scratching the surface of what can be done. For every one process we have discovered, there are a hundred yet to be designed."

Twitter: @KingstonLeeHow




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