Using laser technology similar to that found in compact disc players, scientists from England’s York University have developed a liquid chromatography detector that could prove to be the answer to one of the most perplexing problems facing the pharmaceutical industry.

Many drug licensing bodies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are now proposing that all pharmaceuticals under development be screened for optical activity. That is, they are requiring tests to determine whether the pharmaceuticals exist in enantiomeric, or chiral, forms--asmirror-image isomers identical to each other in every chemical and physical respect except the direction in which they rotate plane-polarized light.

The problem is that such chiral molecules can display quite different physiological properties in their two forms. The drug thalidomide, for example, perhaps the most infamous of these, in one enantiomeric form was perfectly safe and beneficial as a sedative yet differed tragically in the other. Without any screening...

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