#1: Prof. Tohru Fukuyama: Synthesizing natural products at will

#1: Prof. Tohru Fukuyama: Synthesizing natural products at will

The staff at Chem-Station has begun interviewing chemists, mostly within the Japanese chemistry community. In this section, scientists who are at the vanguard of this field will be interviewed.


The very first interview of this series is with Professor Tohru Fukuyama from the Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Tokyo (Currently Professor, Nagoya Universitry), who has been developing methods to effectively synthesize bioactive natural products.

Q: What made you choose chemistry as a career?

A: Perhaps because my dad was an artist, I feel as though I had constantly set high expectations for myself to achieve something creative. While in elementary school, I used to tell my dad that I wanted to be an architect, but looking back on it now, I think I spoke those words simply because I wanted to please my dad, for whom I had great respect. In the end, I decided to choose this path because I felt that I was talented in chemistry after being constantly praised by my science teacher during grade 8 chemistry experiments.


Q: If you were not a chemist, what would you like to be, and why?

A: This is a question beyond my imagination! I once thought being a high school teacher would be nice because my own high school teacher was really cool. That teacher had graduated from the School of Engineering at Tokyo Imperial University (now called the University of Tokyo) and had entered the navy, and after having studied abroad in Germany, he took part in the development of oxygen-based torpedoes, in which the Japanese navy took pride.

These days, I exert myself in growing vegetables, so I feel that a life in the countryside could also be interesting. However, this is also a lifestyle enjoyed by my dad, so I am still not able to “escape the palm of the Buddha” *


*to be unable to overcome a greater force”, such as one’s own master.


Q: Currently, what kind of research are you conducting? Moreover, how do you foresee its future development?

A: These days, I tell my associate and assistant professors that they are allowed to pursue what they desire. They think of a research plan and bring me a proposal, and I judge whether it is interesting enough to begin immediately or if it should be reassessed. Once the project has begun, I act as a consultant and I comment regardless of whether the project is going well or slowly. However, for a few specific projects, I think about the scalability of a given synthetic route quite seriously. In particular, I am making an extra effort to render the synthesis of ecteinascidin-743 (ET-743) scalable. The development of a scalable approach toward useful compounds is something I am very interested in nowadays.


Q: If you could have dinner with three famous scientists from history, who would they be, and why?

A: Being asked about people from the past does not ring a bell for me, but perhaps having dinner with the most beautiful woman of all time would not be such a bad idea. All kidding aside—I would like to see Professor R. B. Woodward once more, as I am very curious to know how his brain is structured. My PhD thesis committee at Harvard University was composed of Professors Woodward, Corey and Kishi. I distinctly remember Professor Woodward’s soft-spoken mannerism and cool gaze during that two-hour oral exam. I felt as though he can read my thoughts and mind. To me, he was the epitome of charisma and I would have liked to get to know him more.


Q: When was the last time you performed an experiment in the laboratory, and what was it about?

A: I was 38 years old when I performed my last experiment, which involved the synthesis of an intermediate toward maitomycin C. From 25 grams of 2,6-dimethoxytoluene, I synthesized a chalcone derivative in 12 steps and in 49% overall yield, without using column chromatography and purifying the desired product by recrystallization. I did not make a single entry into my laboratory notebook during the week it took me to make the desired compound, but a graduate student was able to use this intermediate to complete the total synthesis of maitomycin C in one year. It is clear that his laboratory skills were very good.


Q: If you were stranded on a desert island, which book or song/piece of music would you like to have with you? Please single out your favorite example.

A: It is very difficult for me to single out only one example. If I had to choose for music, it would be a romantic violin piece, either Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin or Beethoven’s Romance. As for a book that gave me the most lasting impression—this may sound mundane—I would choose The Little Prince (original work in French: Le petit prince). Although this book does not contain many words, it candidly and accurately describes human nature. I first read the English version, followed by the Japanese version, and then the German version while in university. Whenever my wife speaks nonsense to me, I have the imagery of the Red Rose in my mind.


Q: Do you have any suggestions as to whom we should interview next?

A: I strongly suggest Professor Takeshi Kitahara, whom I admire dearly. I feel a particular attraction toward him because he displays so many “human” characteristics—there is much uniqueness in him that I do not possess myself.


  • Related sites

The Fukuyama group

Tohru Fukuyama: wikipedia


Biographical sketch of Tohru Fukuyama:

Professor, Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Tokyo (Currently Professor, Nagoya University). He studies the total synthesis of organic compounds by developing new chemical methods. His research group has developed the Fukuyama reduction, the Fukuyama indole synthesis, and the nosyl protecting group, among others. These methods have given rise to new synthetic routes toward a given target, and are excellent reactions that can be adapted to large-scale synthesis.



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