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Kuniaki Tatsuta has accomplished the total synthesis of more than 100 diverse and complex bioactive natural products, including nearly a dozen antibiotics in medical use.
The late professor and Nobel Prize winner Sir Derek Barton once introduced Tatsuta at a conference as “Dr. Total Synthesis.”
Although he is now 72, Tatsuta is not slowing down the pace of his research at Waseda University in Japan. Since 2005, when Chemical Reviews published a summary of the research he had already accomplished, Tatsuta has upped his tempo by completing an additional 22 total syntheses. “All begins from total synthesis,” Tatsuta says, “because the total synthesis of natural products is not the terminal, but the starting point.”
Researchers familiar with Tatsuta’s work note that of the 102 total syntheses he has completed, 95 were carried out for the first time. Among Tatsuta’s major achievements figure the total syntheses, frequently starting from carbohydrates, of aminoglycosides, β-lactams, macrolides, and tetracyclines, often known as the big four antibiotics.
“The targets he chooses are very exact and to the point, and his focus on finding combinations of useful biological activity with new structural features has led to unexpected yet very practical solutions,” comments Teruaki Mukaiyama, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University.
Much of Tatsuta’s research has medical applications. For example, his total syntheses of glycosidase inhibitors “demonstrated for the first time the theoretical possibilities of chemically creating inhibitors against all glycosidases, and developing antidiabetes drugs,” Mukaiyama points out.
In 1988, a new anticancer agent that Tatsuta synthesized, pirarubicin, went on the market, and in 1995, Tatsuta’s discoveries led to the commercial launch of cefozopran, a fourth-generation cephem antibiotic.
The natural products that Tatsuta chooses as his goals typically feature “brutal synthetic challenges,” observes Andrea Vasella, a professor at the Laboratory for Organic Chemistry of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) who is familiar with Tatsuta’s research. Many of these targets embody particularly intricate arrays of functional groups, requiring novel strategies and the development of new methods, Vasella adds.
Tatsuta is now an honorary fellow and professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Waseda University, where he was a professor of synthetic organic chemistry and bioactive substances science. He was also director of the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, a center of excellence for the development of young researchers.
After earning his Ph.D. in 1969 at Keio University, Tatsuta did postdoctoral studies at Harvard University from 1973 to 1975 with Robert B. Woodward, the late synthetic organic chemist and Nobel Prize winner. Tatsuta then returned to Keio and was promoted to full professor in the Faculty of Science & Technology in 1985. In 1993, he moved to Waseda, also as a professor, where he became dean of the Graduate School of Science & Engineering in 2004.
Tatsuta has won numerous awards in Japan, culminating with the Japan Academy Prize in 2009. In 2001, the Chemical Society of Japan awarded him its Distinguished Award. He also received Japan’s National Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2002.
Tatsuta will present the award address before the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry.