February 2007



If you believed every press release (and believe me, we get a lot of them) about antioxidants, you’d spend your life forcefeeding yourself with wine, tea, chocolate and blueberries. Bloated and drunk, you would at least be safe in the knowledge that your body was pumped full of antioxidants – those mysterious but supposedly life-saving compounds that mop up free radicals produced by your mitochondria. The free radical theory of aging suggests that if you reduce the reactive oxygen free radicals floating around your cells, you’ll live longer because you suffer less biochemical damage from these little tykes. The perfect free radical sponges should be antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. The trouble is, most scientific studies show the damn things don’t work – this one from the Lancet in 2003 was a meta-analysis of several vitamin E studies, which found that they were positively harmful. Now, an enormous meta-analysis has found similar results, putting vitamins E, A and beta carotene in the dock. Although there are ways to explain results like this that are still consistent with the free radical theory of aging, it certainly puts the idea under pressure.

Meanwhile, for those still popping the vitamin pills, I’d be tempted to follow the advice of qualified dieticians: eat plenty of fruit and veg, try to maintain a balanced diet, and you’ll be fine. Yes, I know it’s banal, and surely not as exciting as a chocolate-and-blueberry diet, or as convenient as boosting yourself with doses of vitamin pills. But it’s no coincidence that those shouting about the benefits of particular antioxidant supplements are often the very same people who peddle the pills.

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Great session this afternoon courtesy of the ACS analytical division: how to detect diseases in developing countries where lab facilities are less than optimal. Helen Lee at the University of Cambridge (always the way, you travel halfway across the world to listen to someone from your home town) showed us photos of a hospital in Kumasi, Ghana (Kofi Annan’s home town). There was a big black bin in the hospital’s diagnostics lab, but it wasn’t for putting rubbish in, it was full of water for when the supply was shut down. And the fridge door was kept closed with the help of an old broom handle.

Lee makes the point that it’s in places like this – where facilities are at their most basic (and this is far from the worst) and where killer infectious diseases are rife, that analytical chemists need to come up with incredibly simple to use diagnostic tests.

And designing a test that’s simple to use at the point of care is far from simple. Her team has spent years cramming all the whizz-bang technology that would be needed to diagnose HIV or hepatitis B in a Western lab into something the size of a dipstick. In fact, it is a dipstick; a dipstick as sensitive as a $60,000 machine back home.

There are still problems to iron out (especially in sample collection and preparation), but Lee’s work, along with that of the other speakers in today’s session, hint at some exciting possibilities for the future. It was a fascinating afternoon, enjoyed by a packed auditorium – in contrast to the numerous poorly attended sessions at an event where I read today that exhibitors now outnumber the so-called conferees.

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I haven’t visited half so many trade stands as you might imagine based on the hours I’ve spent circumnavigating the trade hall (or ‘exposition’). They number the aisles in 100s: 500-600, 3000-3100 etc but then the individual stands aren’t numbered. So you have to walk the however many hundreds of yards it is to find the one stand you’re looking for. I gave up hunting for #613 this morning, apologies whoever you are.

I begin to see why companies lure you in with an extraordinary array of gifts, otherwise nobody would find anybody. Thermo Fisher have a brilliant wheeze – visitors get to pick a gemstone of their choice on the stand, and then find out whether or not it’s real. Apparently there are real gemstones in amongst a load of fakes. It’s clever, people are queuing up for these things, and it flags up the company’s gemstone analysis technology.

I stopped by at Shimadzu (easy to find as they have a big flash stand – that’s another thing, the layout really doesn’t benefit the start-ups and other SMEs) Shimadzu were feeling the effects of the low turn-out. I haven’t been to Pittcon before, but they say it’s a lot less busy than usual. (and the conference organisers say last year was disappointing, so this isn’t good)

I had breakfast with BioRad this morning. It’s a company I feel strangely at home with, my PhD relied heavily on BioRad instruments and reagents. Some of the systems they showed us today would have made my life a lot easier, though I worry a bit that getting a flash graphical representation of your results in seconds might not always encourage you to think what the results actually mean. At least if you have to spend ages looking at the figures before you turn them into graphs, you’re more likely to wonder what they’re really showing.

BioRad’s Experion automated electrophoresis station performs all of the steps of gel-based electrophoresis in one unit.

BioRad’s Experion automated electrophoresis station performs all of the steps of gel-based electrophoresis in one unit.

 

Of course I haven’t thought that through very carefully, and we’d all be using abacuses still if I had my way. Nevertheless it looks alarmingly straightforward to stick solution A down a column and end up with a beautiful flash histogram. Keep having to remind myself, though, that these are press conferences, not real life.

Everyone – BioRad, PerkinElmer, Thermo Fisher, Agilent etc etc – is focussed on making things quick and easy. Whenever possible, it’s a case of ‘put your sample into the hole, press a button, wait a few minutes, print off your fully processed results’. It’s a far cry from my spell in the lab, but it’s probably a far cry from today’s real-life labs too. I keep overhearing people on the conference bus bemoaning the experiment that didn’t work, the sample that didn’t precipitate, the peak that ran into a second peak etc etc…

One final whinge: it takes me about 15 mins to get from the front entrance of the conference centre to the lecture theatres. I have to go past all the trade stands, up a succession of escalators, and along some amazingly lengthy corridors. Which means that visiting a press conference here (generally near the front entrance) and attending a lecture or two there, takes way longer than the time taken up by each presentation. The rosy plan of dividing my time effortlessly between the trade-show side of things and the conference side of things has been rejigged out of all recognition. Still, I’ll be returning home a good deal fitter.

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So much for Pittcon organisers putting previous low attendance rates behind them. Bad weather has delayed or cancelled hundreds of flights coming into Chicago. Many would-be delegates (known round here as conferees) have had to give up coming altogether. On this morning’s news I watched wannabe holiday-makers camping out in the departure lounge at snow-clad Chicago O’Hare airport, waiting for non-existent flights. And flights have been cancelled from several other airports, too.

 

 

Pittcon has had some pretty bad luck with the weather, this coming just a year after the conference’s previous venue was recovering from Hurricane Katrina. ‘It’s very bad,’ one of the Pittcon press officers told me, as she surveyed the poster they’d pinned up a couple of days ago to keep us up-to-date on the latest (record-breaking, they’d hoped) registration figures.
That aside, it’s been a busy day here. Thermo Fisher Scientific outlined their expansive range of mass spec and chromatography technologies.
Company executives are making every effort to secure our votes in the ‘Editors’ Awards’. These were new to me, but are gold dust even to companies the size of Thermo. Holders of press registration are asked to nominate the most significant products exhibited at the show – and votes are taken to an awards judging session on Wednesday afternoon. Gold, silver and bronze awards are awarded (‘just like the Oscars’) and these become important marketing tools for the lucky winners.
Alongside Thermo’s portfolio, we were introduced to Agilent’s and Perkin Elmer’s products and services. Agilent are especially proud of themselves for launching what they say is a genuinely new product (Many ‘new’ products are only slight improvements on last year’s versions), a GC system that goes on sale on 1 March. It’s been 10 years in the making, they say, and customers are – apparently, and we only have Agilent’s word for it – clamouring to be the first to own this time-saving, labour-saving miracle.
The ACS analytical division’s been hard at work too, and we heard about some very clever nanobiotechnological advances at a morning session chaired by the division chair Laurie Locascio. Daniel Chiu at the University of Washington had some amazing data on his analysis of individual organelles (eg mitochondria) inside cells: ‘single cell nanosurgery’.
The field moves fast. Chiu has had to develop an alternative technique to the (now common, apparently) optical tweezers. Turns out that the tweezers, which I mistakenly imagined were the pinnacle of hi-tech, are responsible for multi-photon induced damage of the particles they’re singling out. Chiu’s team is working on an alternative called polarisation-shaped vortex traps. Watch this space.
It hasn’t all been state-of-the-art today. I found myself in a session on the detection of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, including a talk on the use of packaging in detecting counterfeits. The presenter warned us it wouldn’t be about chemistry, but I’m not sure who needed to know that one of the tools used to determine whether or not a label on a drug pack is fake or genuine was… ‘a ruler with fine gradations.’ 

 

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Nanobuds: not some quasi-scientific beer campaign 😉 but the latest thing in carbon nanotube research. They’re single-walled carbon nanotubes with football-shaped fullerenes stuck on their outer surfaces, like buds on a tree branch. They could be useful in microelectronics because they combine the best properties of robust nanotubes and reactive fullerenes. Here’s what they look like:

Nanobuds

Nanobuds

While I’m here, I’ll call your attention to another fabulous pic from a story that’s been covered in New Scientist and Nature:

A hydrophobic-coated ball makes a bigger splash than a smooth one

A hydrophobic-coated ball makes a bigger splash than a smooth one

This shows that a ball coated with a hydrophobic layer (silane molecules) makes an almighty splash, as the water molecules back off, creating an air cavity. On the left you can see the same ball, not coated with hydrophobic stuff, just gently plopping into the water. Brilliant.

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More shameless plugging for RSC innovations – this time from David Bradley, formerly of this parish, over on his Reactive Reports website. There you can read an interview with Robert Parker, head of publishing here at the RSC, about Project Prospect – a system that now allows electronic RSC journal papers to be read, indexed, and intelligently searched by machine. The aim of this project – the first of its kind – is to create a chemical version of the ‘semantic web’: where computers can understand the meaning (semantics) of information, rather than simply display data. Read more about the project on Chemistry World, and also at the Project Prospect page.

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The 58th Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon 2007) is under way here in Chicago. It is, according to its organisers, ‘the world’s largest, most comprehensive conference and exposition for laboratory science.’

Certainly, with over 250 000 square foot of exhibition hall taken up by over 1000 exhibiting companies (in a 570 000 square foot venue), it’s difficult to see how it could get any bigger. I’m wondering if my footwear is up to the job. Though figuring out what to wear on these occasions is impossible; I stood outside my hotel in the driving snow waiting for the conference bus this afternoon, and ended up in a sub-tropical carbon-far-from-neutral lecture theatre.

I’ve never been to Pittcon before, but I get the impression that it is an old favourite of my fellow Media badge holders. Today’s opening press conference included a list of eight highlights for 2007 – one of which was the startling news that ‘overhead lighting is permitted’ for exhibitors. It was pointed out to us several times, and I could feel everyone around me nodding sagely, and murmuring that it was about time. I guess you had to be there when overhead lighting wasn’t allowed.

The really big news this year is that, for the first time, Pittcon has joined forces with the ACS’ division of analytical chemistry. The analytical division (generally abbreviated to ANYL by the ACS, but known as DAC here at Pittcon) is one of the ACS’ largest divisions, with over 11 000 members. A large proportion of them make the annual pilgrimage to Pittcon – to check out the latest products and services available in analytical chemistry and applied spectroscopy – so it made sense for the division to hold its spring meeting here rather than at the ACS, said division chair Laurie Locascio. The ACS spring meeting is also going to be held in Chicago, starting in just a few weeks time.

There were just over 18 000 Pittcon pre-registrants at the last count. How that will rise remains to be seen, but organisers are optimistic that this will be the best attended meeting for a couple of years (the meeting was previously held in New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina).

Two things are sure for Pittcon 2008, said Pittcon president, Beth Kirol – it will be going back to New Orleans, and the ACS division of analytical chemistry will continue alongside.

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This is neat – a hydrogel that crumples up just like a crisp being fried when you heat it up a little. The really clever bit is that it is ‘programmable’ – that is, you can tailor the chemistry of the hydrogel to make a specific shape. They’ve managed to produce sombreros, saddles, bowls, tubes, ‘flowers’ … cooling them down flattens the gel out again.
The other cool part of this is that we are finally (!) able to post video clips on the Chemistry World website, so now you can actually watch the crumpling gels do their stuff (page down to the bottom of the story). Yay!

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Anyone who ever studied in an undergraduate chemistry lab will know the name of Albert Cotton. He and Geoffrey Wilkinson wrote the textbook in inorganic chemistry, generally referred to as Cotton and Wilkinson.

You can read his obituary here.

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Scientists in Japan say they’re the first to have grown teeth in the lab that can then be successfully grafted into adult animals. The method, they suggest, could be used to reconstitute a wide variety of organs, including hair follicles, kidneys and livers. 

But publication of their research in Nature Methods this week has drawn some scathing criticism. Paul Sharpe, professor of craniofacial development at King’s College, London, UK, told Chemistry World: ‘It’s a disgrace. The paper says nothing new. I wouldn’t have accepted it for any journal, let alone Nature Methods.’

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