Green chemistry in the pharma industry: Sustainable pastures for those who innovate

Jonathan Agbenyega, Ph.D. , Business Development Manager

With rising sea levels and climate change impacting communities across the globe, industrial nations are looking to manage output and identify processes to reduce their impact on the environment. One approach that has gained momentum since the 1990s is green chemistry, a scientific field focused on "the invention, design, and application of chemical products and processes to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances."

In 1998, Paul Anastas and John Warner co-authored a book setting out the 12 principles that form the basis of green chemistry, including a range of ways to reduce the environmental and human impact of chemical production. However, in some industries the adoption of green chemistry practices is seen as an unjustified compromise to profitability.

Making waves in the pharma industry with green chemistry

According to the ACS Green Chemistry Institute, "After all of the research advancements in green chemistry and engineering, mainstream chemical businesses have not yet fully embraced the technology. Today, more than 98% of all organic chemicals are still derived from petroleum." As the green chemistry movement continues to influence policy, business practices and consumer perception, companies must find new ways to "go green" while maintaining their bottom line. This is particularly true in the pharmaceutical industry.

The ACS Green Chemistry Institute has formed the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable to "encourage innovation while catalyzing the integration of green chemistry and green engineering in the pharmaceutical industry." Members of the Roundtable include AstraZeneca, Bayer, Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., Novartis, Pfizer, and Takeda, among others

The involvement of so many well-known pharmaceutical companies is encouraging, as the industry has historically been resistant to altering proven manufacturing and research methods. Although the adoption of green chemistry principles could be viewed as an additional hurdle for an industry already challenged with regulatory issues, intellectual property demands, and fail fast requirements, pharma companies are beginning to realize the efficiencies and cost savings it offers.

By applying the atom economy principle of green chemistry(i.e., synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product) in pharma R&D, fewer byproducts are produced, thus minimizing storage and disposal costs. Solvents can also significantly impact costs, as they typically account for 50-80 percent of the mass in a standard batch chemical operation, drive most of the energy consumption, and cause the greatest concern with process safety.

For example, Merck developed a greener way to make molnupiravir, an antiviral medicine for the treatment of COVID-19. Benefits included reducing solvent waste, increasing yield by1.6 fold, and cutting a five step process down to three. In 2022, The U.S. Environmental protection Agency recognized the work with the Greener Reaction Conditions Award.

Amgen developed a greener synthesis for LUMAKRAS™, a novel drug for the treatment of certain non-small cell lung cancers. Benefits included cutting a purification step that generated large amounts of solvent waste, saving £3.17M per year, and boosting yield. In 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also recognized the work with the Greener Reactions Condition Award.

Staying ahead of the green chemistry curve

At the heart of every pharma company is the promise to deliver groundbreaking drugs to improve lives across the globe. To achieve this goal in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way, pharma companies require access to the latest research in the field. They must innovate beyond traditional synthetic processes.

Starting in the late 1990s, and coinciding with publication of the groundbreaking book by Anastas and Warner, there has been a dramatic increase in research related to the scope of green chemistry in the design and synthesis of pharmaceutical agents. Today, the scientific literature includes more than 2.1 million journal articles related to the field.

As with many emerging fields, the use of inconsistent terminology in the scientific literature presents a challenge to those looking to leverage the latest findings. Pharma companies need information solutions that enable their researchers to easily locate greener chemistry: reactions, reagents, solvents, and catalysts as they optimize their syntheses for sustainability.

At CAS, our scientists index green chemistry-related information as they curate the world's largest collection of chemistry insights. This intellectual indexing allows pharma researchers to quickly track down the green chemistry information they need, including more than 45 thousand "green" chemical reactions from the unparalleled CAS Content Collection™. 

CAS also provides landscape views on the latest green chemistry trends that can impact other aspects of manufacturing including packaging development. Learn more in the CAS Insight Report exploring “Bio-based Polymers: A Green Alternative to Traditional Plastics”.