A Right Hook Against Asthma

ASTHMA COULD BE THE latest ailment to be alleviated by a hot theory in pharmacology: When it comes to drug molecules, one hand is better than two. Sepracor Inc. in Marlborough, Mass., says it has developed a "right-handed" organic molecule that treats asthma far more effectively than drugs containing both right- and left-handed molecules. Depending on their handedness, or "chirality," molecules perform drastically different roles. In thalidomide, for example, the good isomer acted as a sedative; the other caused birth defects. Today, 90% of synthetic drugs contain equal portions of the right- and left-handed molecules.

Sepracor has already created safer, one-handed versions of painkillers, allergy pills, and prostate medications, some of which are approaching commercialization. The right-handed version of the asthma inhaler drug, albuterol, is aimed at preventing "hyperreactivity." The side effect, which worsens asthma attacks, occurs because the body metabolizes the good isomer in albuterol first and then starts reacting to its evil twin. The new version of albuterol is in clinical trials in Europe.

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