A single drug can have several, and sometimes harmful, side effects thus doctors often prescribe cycles of chemotherapy and rest to avert damage to their patients' immune systems, for example.
"Particularly in the pharmaceutical industry one wants to have increasing selectivity in regulating a pathway or target," said Overman, an organic chemist at the University of California, Irvine. "That desire drives increasingly complex chemical structures of drugs and places a major challenge on those who design and manufacture them."
Giving drug designers the tools to make such products is the aim of Overman's research. "What my laboratory does is engineer and invent new chemical reactions that make structures that are by nature drug-like, and make them efficiently," he said.
Overman often works with particular target molecules in mind. For example, a class of promising anti-cancer agents, discovered in Mediterranean sea sponges, caught his eye about 10 years ago, he said. Over the next eight years his group became the first, and so far the only, to make the compounds in the laboratory from simple starting materials. His synthesis has since been licensed by a Spanish pharmaceutical company interested in studying the drug candidates.
Over the last three decades he has "contributed more than 60 complex total syntheses to the literature" and "virtually all these syntheses contain pivotal reactions methods developed within the Overman group," noted a colleague in nominating him for the award.