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Chemistry Trends: What's New?

If the field of chemistry in the year 2021 was to be summed up in one word, that word would be “growth.” After a previously significant year, full of medical challenges and big demand from those in the chemical and pharmaceutical research field, 2021 saw big advances into technology and algorithm developments to better understand and predict the effects of viruses and a number of other illnesses. 

As we move into the year 2022, this pattern of growth will continue to dominate the industry of chemistry. From following in the footsteps of leaders who attended COP26 to improve sustainability in chemical production, to using technology and emerging research to help the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, there are lots of emerging trends in chemistry set to grow in 2022 and beyond. 

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Below, we’ve selected four of the biggest to look out for in the coming year. Read them through in detail to gain insight into current research, and feel inspired by the emerging developments set to improve our wellbeing in the new year and beyond.

1. Sustainable chemical production


With the continued pressure on governments and organisations around the world to focus their efforts on sustainable living and production, especially down to the recent advances made at the COP26 meeting, the chemistry industry will see a renewed focus on sustainability in the coming years.

One of the most important areas for many chemical companies in 2022 will focus on decarbonisation during production processes. Firstly, this will be research-focused, looking at ways that they can reduce the amount of carbon produced as a result of general business practices and chemical production. There will be an increase in investment in recycling technologies; looking how to reduce emissions and reduce plastic waste which occur as part of the business as usual practices.

But beyond this, companies will also be looking at ways that they can improve sustainability beyond their internal systems. Many companies will seek to understand and find ways to help their customers reduce their carbon footprint, and how they can partner to improve their combined sustainability procedures. 

As a result, in 2022 you can expect to see more companies and key players in the chemical production industry creating goals and plans around the abatement of chemical waste and emissions.


2. Artificial Intelligence as a predictor of viruses


Due to the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the industry’s focus will understandably look to improve our understanding of the illness and other viruses. There will be lots of investigative work, including both in vaccine research and effective treatment for those who are clinically vulnerable and/or in hospital requiring treatment.

When the scientific community first responded to the virus outbreak, laboratories at the forefront of viral infection shared open access databases with researchers around the world, sharing genomes that could help rapidly develop tests for the COVID-19 pathogen.

In December 2020, artificial intelligence company DeepMind (who are behind the impressive AI behaviours of Google) made a ground-breaking development when they announced that artificial intelligence could lead to the long-standing problem of protein folding. That is, could it help us predict the structure of a protein just from its amino acid sequence? And as such, help us understand a wide range of cellular activities and reactions that occur in the cells in our bodies.

The development came about through research into Coronavirus; DeepMind were able to predict the structures of two specific SARS-CoV-2 proteins - the virus that causes COVID-19. This breakthrough was the culmination of decades of research spent characterising that particular virus family, and DeepMind’s developments now serves as a hypothesis platform for future experimental work developing therapeutics.

Now that we’ve established the possibilities of what algorithms can predict for chemistry, much attention will be turned to seeing what its capabilities are. For example, will it be able to predict drug-binding pockets? Improving both the efficiency and effectiveness of drug development? Can it predict abnormalities in protein-folding? What is its potential for mankind?

3. Improved efficiency for personalised drug treatments


Some of the most common pharmaceuticals available on the market are made by a process of ‘chaining.’ That is, where scientists quite literally ‘chain’ together rings of molecules to create the various chemical structures needed to base medicines off.

This process is the basic structure of many medications used to treat physical ailments and disease such as chronic pain and leukaemia, as well as to manage a range of mental health conditions including depression. 

As each of these illnesses and conditions are so vastly different from one another; some require neurological chemical balancing, while others require transportation around the bloodstream to act on cells all over the body. Therefore, each of the medications we use to treat and manage these conditions require a different creation process.

This requires creating rings and formatting them in a way which is different for each illness - a time-consuming and often costly process in medicinal chemistry. 

In 2022, a key emerging trend in Chemistry will involve looking at ways to simplify the process and make it easier to create medication for a vast array of illnesses, at a much faster pace. 

New research has already started to make hypotheses for improvements to the process. Likening the process to making a belt with no holes, ”the problem we were trying to solve is how do you punch the hole so that it fits you perfectly, and get it right on the first try without measuring.” (David Nagib, Associate Professor at The Ohio State University). 

"The trick here was we had to put the holes in just the right place, but we had to figure out precisely where the holes should go, without any markings to tell us where that might be."

By oxidising two carbon-hydrogen bonds, researchers have been able to select specific hydrogen molecules in a chain and add, remove and alter them based on the nitrogen ring needed to create a specific formula. 

Although the process does start to resolve the problems associated with early-stage drug development, it’s still an extremely expensive process and difficult to upscale for mass-production of medication. It’s also only very early-on in terms of research development - and more will need to be done to explore how we may one day be able to simplify the process. Therefore, except to see this field of work continued to be investigated far into the new year. 

4. Wearable sensors will improve healthcare monitoring


Sitting on the top of many wish lists this holiday season will be smartwatches - but not for reasons that you may first think of. Our modern and tech-heavy world means many of us fall into a sedentary lifestyle all too easily; we’re often sat behind desks studying, plugged into our computers at home, and even have automated home systems that can turn on our lights, TV and kettle without us having to lift a finger.

Yet, emerging technologies are also having an impact on our personal health, encouraging us to make small changes towards improving our physical and mental wellbeing. 

Once aimed towards fitness enthusiasts, brands like Fitbit, Apple and Garmin are gaining a significant foothold in the world of science. Whether tracking our heart movements, monitoring glucose levels or surveying our bodies for viral infections, these wearable technologies are paving the way in gathering valuable health-related information to improve the treatments and lives of millions. 

Giving us greater access to telemedicine, physical therapy, and even how to stay on top of our medications, smartwatches are emerging (and set to continue emerging) as a popular piece of technology for many. 

We’ve already seen in 2021 how these wearable devices have been programmed with new algorithms to detect emerging illnesses, such as COVID-19, in an effort to overcome pandemics and other viral illnesses. So we’re excited to see how, in 2022, these technologies will be developed even further to improve the efficiencies between chemists and healthcare. 

Currently, doctors can take your basic vitals and other information from these devices and share it with wider teams to gain valuable insight around your health to make alterations and prescribe medications that could improve your overall well being.

But beyond this, smartwatches can also improve your overall health by giving you access to apps designed around specific health conditions, such as diabetes. 

Developed alongside scientists and other healthcare professionals, 2022 is set to see an increase in spending from app developers into creating even more resources to improve the lives of millions of people.

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In 2021, chemistry saw growth in technology, sustainability, and virus research. The trends to watch in 2022 are sustainable production, AI virus prediction, efficient drug treatments, and healthcare monitoring with wearable sensors.

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