Harvey Mudd Chemists Streamline Lidocaine Production

Researchers in the Vosburg Lab in the Department of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College have designed a new, environmentally friendly method to make lidocaine that is ideally suited for undergraduate organic chemistry laboratory courses.

“We developed a milder, simpler and less hazardous route to the common local anesthetic lidocaine than the traditional two-step route used industrially and in teaching labs,” says chemistry professor David Vosburg, who performed the research with Michelle Lee ’22, Emily Shimizu ’20, Professor Rocío Gámez-Montaño and graduate student Alejandro Rentería (collaborators from University of Guanajuato) and Vosburg’s son, Nathan, now a junior in high school. The research, “Multicomponent Synthesis of Lidocaine at Room Temperature,” is published online by the Journal of Chemical Education.

“Lidocaine is generally still made the same way as when it was discovered in 1946, with only rather minor modifications,” Vosburg says. “A completely different way to make it was reported in 1959, but it used some rather nasty and toxic reagents. We replaced the worst of those and streamlined the process for a remarkably effective, one-step preparation of lidocaine at room temperature.”

Lee and Shimizu, both majoring in chemistry and biology, contributed to this work over several years. “Shimizu did some of the early work on this experiment while I was in Mexico working on alternative procedures with my collaborators at the University of Guanajuato,” says Vosburg. Upon Vosburg’s return to HMC, Lee and Nathan Vosburg (then a first-year student at Upland High School) performed the key optimization experiments in the lab in fall 2019.

“It was Nathan’s science fair project that year, and he’s thinking of applying to Harvey Mudd this fall,” Vosburg says. Lee, who graduated this month from HMC is taking a job in industry, and Shimizu is finishing her second year in the chemistry PhD program at University of California, Irvine. While at HMC, Shimizu co-authored another published article with Vosburg, Johnson Hoang ‘20 and two UCLA collaborators on a different green chemistry project. Lee and Nathan presented a poster on the lidocaine research at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego in March 2022.