Catalyzing Solutions: Is Your Paracetamol Right for You?

By Prakhar Gautam

One of the most widely used over-the-counter medicines in the U.S. is paracetamol, better known as its brand name “Tylenol.” This drug has variety of uses, such as treating aches, pains, and fevers. However, what most people don’t know is that this molecule exists in multiple forms. 

The fact that all solid matter is crystal is generally not that exciting to most. To me, a future chemist, however, this fact is incredibly exciting. At this point you might say, “But Prakhar, this solid chair I’m sitting on isn’t a crystal.” To that, dear reader, I would respond that we’re about to go on a journey through science. 

Illustration by Cate Johnson

A crystal in chemistry is an arrangement of atoms in an ordered, microscopic structure that repeats in all directions to make the solid matter you see. Now you might say, “But Prakhar, why do I care about crystals?” If you’re asking me this question, you haven’t spent any time waiting for a full moon to recharge a crystal necklace. 

Another reason would be that most pharmaceutical drugs made today are crystals. One of the hardest things to do as a big pharma company is to crystalize a drug in its bioactive form. Paracetamol has three distinct ways it can crystallize, or stack up in several thousand layers. 

Currently, it most often stacks up in a distinct shape called Form I, which is not as bioactive, and uses more space than shape Form II. Getting the molecule to stack up as Form II is incredibly difficult and is one of the biggest challenges pharma companies face. 

To battle this challenge, Professor Eli José Monge and I spent the summer creating a mechanism that allowed for an electric field to pass through it. Our hopes were that this electric field would influence the way a crystal would be aligned, so that we could help pharma companies develop cheaper and more efficient drugs for diseases, such as cancer and HIV. Currently, we’ve been successfully able to change the way organic reactions happen using the electric field. Starting in Block 8, we will work on influencing how paracetamol stacks to make better Tylenol for everyone. 

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