Science of chemical analysis and separation

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Posted By : ScienceIndia Administrator

Imagine a crime scene, now a scientist walks in puts on his hand gloves and mask. The detective shows him a few clues or evidence of the crime – one of them is a powder.
 
So what is the powder? What elements are there in that mixture? How much of each component is there in the mixture? 
 
This information might give vital clues and help the detective to solve the crime. Sounds interesting? 
 
This is a part of forensic science and one of the tools used in forensic science is chemical analysis. Chemical analysis is used to identify, separate, and quantify the components in the given sample.
 
It is nowadays a routinely performed procedure in-
Diagnostic labs - to know how much of glucose, cholesterol is in your blood?
Environmental analysis - what is in the drinking water or in the air we breathe?
Pharmaceutical analysis - how much of the drug is in the mixture or in your blood? 
These are some of the applications where it is used day in and day out to determine or extract information for various reasons.
 
Long ago odour, texture, colour of the compound or mixture were used to identify them. Later as time went on, several chemical tests were designed to identify commonly presents elements/compounds in a mixture. Now with the advancement of technology we are able to separate the elements/ions in a mixture and determine their quantities.
 
As we advance into a new generation, enormous challenges are put before scientists to identify and separate compounds/elements/ions/ molecules from a complex mixture. These mixtures range from biological samples (blood, urine, etc.) from a cancer patient where it is important to determine the progression of the disease to challenging extra-terrestrial samples to determine surface characteristics of moon or mars. This complex study to separate all the components in a complex sample and quantify them is called separation science.
 
Several techniques that help in separating complex mixtures into individual identifiable components have been in use such as liquid or gas chromatography, capillary electrophoresis, etc. A wide range of detectors that identify the element/ion at very low concentrations has been developed such as mass spectrometry is being used nowadays.
 
Although such advanced techniques do exist, nature provides us with some complex samples that are difficult to separate and quantify. Hence, scientists across the world put a constant effort to develop techniques that help separate and quantify complex samples.
 
One such field that needs continued effort is research and development in pharmaceutical and health care. For example, complex diseases like cancer are difficult to detect at early stages. A general notion says early detection leads to better treatment. However, this varies in different types of cancer. What if, we analyse a blood sample and predict the cancer much before it delivers a significant damage the patient. This would improve the quality of life of the patient with better response to existing treatment.
 
In order to develop a new drug, it takes about 16000 crore rupees in recent estimates. One of the main reason for this monumental amount is most drugs fail during clinical trials and out of a few thousand possible drug candidates only a few make it to the clinical trial stage. Clinical trials are expensive affair, companies and government body’s loose enormous amount of money when drugs fail at later stages. One possibility to reduce the costs is to develop better preclinical tests that enable drug candidates to fail faster and more importantly fail cheaper. That means advanced and better preclinical tests that judge the capabilities of the new drug candidate. One such project is in motion in Europe where innovative models and techniques are being tested in collaboration universities and industries (ARIADME - Analytical research in adsorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion profiling). 
 
In a health care sector or in pharmaceutical world or in environmental perspective separation of complex mixtures are the need of the hour. As advancement in science proceeds, more interesting and complex challenges arise that require innovative techniques and methods, more importantly curious young minds.
 
- Pranov Ramana, PhD researcher in pharmaceutical sciences, KU Leuven, Belgium (www.ariadme.eu).

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