By David Constable Science Director, ACS Green Chemistry Institute
Over the past few months we’ve highlighted the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), showing just a few of the many ways in which chemistry plays an enormous part in achieving the goal. This month we turn our attention to SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being. The table below contains three targets under this goal that perhaps have the most obvious connections to chemistry and its allied professions.
3.3 By 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.
3.9 By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.
3.B Support the research and development of vaccines and medicines for the communicable and noncommunicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries, provide access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines….
With the advent of COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would not see the relevance and singular importance of this particular SDG. Disease, of one kind or another, is an unavoidable part of every living organism’s existence and has clearly exacted a heavy toll on human society throughout our comparatively brief history. We don’t need a pandemic to remind us of this fact, although many in the developed world are largely shielded from most of the diseases that impact billions in other parts of the world.
The easiest target for the green and sustainable chemistry community to bridge to is, of course, 3.9. Arguably this target has been the major focus of much of green chemistry over the past 25 years or so and while there has been significant progress towards this goal, the world has a long way to go to achieve this target. I have often made the point that the bulk of the chemistry enterprise continues to rely on highly reactive and hazardous chemicals as chemical building blocks, almost all of which is unsustainably sourced. An additional impact comes from its extensive use of energy, the overwhelming majority of which comes from fossil carbon. Each of these, in their own way, contribute to the production of hazardous chemicals and pollution.
The discovery and development of novel medicines and therapies is the focus of many people’s attention and considerable amounts of research dollars are spent each year in the public and private sector to develop novel medicines and therapies to treat a vast array of communicable and non-communicable diseases. While the bulk of research goes towards diseases of the developed world, there are a few diseases afflicting the developing world that significant effort has been made to eradicate. Two past examples that come readily to mind are Merck’s efforts to eradicate river blindness, and GSK’s efforts to eradicate elephantiasis filariasis, diseases that affect billions in equatorial regions of the world, both of which exact a heavy price on those regions and their economies. Two diseases that continue to afflict the developing world, diarrhea and malaria, affect millions and are especially cruel, with diarrhea being the cause of several million infant deaths each year. Vaccines play an incredibly important role also, with many diseases like polio, hepatitis A and B, and small pox, now largely preventable.
Preventing many diseases is directly dependent upon achieving progress in the other SDGs like clean water, good nutrition, and clean air. The bottom line is that these goals are not achievable in the absence of progress under several different goals, and progress will be enabled through chemistry and its allied professions. ;
Thankfully, the Pharmaceutical industry is a strong believer in, and supporter of, the advancement of green and sustainable chemistry. This is an important point that clearly demonstrates that the means to an end; i.e., the manufacture, distribution and sale of pharmaceuticals, is seen as being an important part of what it means to be a sustainable company. As the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable (PRT) has demonstrated over the past 15 years, the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry makes medicines should be accomplished in a manner that is green and sustainable. The PRT has invested over $2M in targeted research grants to investigate the grand challenges of green and sustainable chemistry in the Pharmaceutical industry, has developed tools to help scientists and engineers make better decisions about the solvents they use, the synthetic routes they develop, and the processes they optimize. As the industry has moved towards a greater number of larger molecules (biopharmaceuticals like monoclonal antibodies and other engineered proteins, oligonucleotides and polypeptides), the PRT has continued to investigate ways to make their processes greener and more sustainable
There is no doubt that good health and well-being is a goal worth striving for, and thankfully, it is a goal against which it is possible to see good progress being made over time. We should, therefore, have reasonable hope of continued progress. However, we should also be under no illusions; it is a goal which remains largely unattainable for large segments of the world’s population. There is no lack of work to do, let’s just work to make good health and well-being as green and sustainable as possible!