May 2007



As China battles to root out corruption from its pharmaceutical sector, the former head of the State Food and Drug Agency (SFDA), Zheng Xiaoyu, has been sentenced to death after being found guilty of taking bribes.

Yet despite Zheng’s high-profile example, industry experts say that a more systematic approach to cleaning up China’s drug business is essential for its healthy development.

On 29 May, Beijing First People’s Intermediary Court ruled that Zheng, 62, should be executed for taking bribes of 6.49 million Yuan (US$ 848,366) from eight pharmaceutical and medical equipment firms and illegally approving their products.

The court explained in its ruling that Zheng’s behaviour had destroyed the normal drug regulatory procedure, threatened people’s lives and health, and had a major societal impact.

Read more on this story at Chemistry World.

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There could be new dietary advice for hedonistic ravers following a study from the US showing that a dangerous side effect of ecstasy use is perpetuated by fatty food. The study, carried out in rodents, showed that combining the drug with a high fat diet leads to a significant and potentially lethal increase in body temperature.

Jon Sprague from Ohio Northern University and his colleagues, divided 24 rats into high fat diet and low fat diet groups. ’60 per cent of the caloric intake for the rats on the high fat diet was fat, compared to 10 per cent for the animals on the low fat diet,’ he explained.

After 28 days of bingeing, the rats’ blood levels of free fatty acids (FFAs) were measured. Fat in the diet is broken down into these FFAs, which enter the bloodstream so, as expected, a month-long fat-rich diet significantly increased the rats’ blood levels of FFAs.

After the animals were treated with ecstasy, their core body temperature was measured. The high fat diet doubled the body temperature increase to 3˚C increase, compared to 1.5˚C.

Hyperthermia, an increase in body temperature, is a known side effect of ecstasy, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). It is a leading cause of the deaths associated with the drug’s use.

FFAs interact with proteins in mitochondria, the energy-making components of cells, and interfere with their function. Sprague explained that when functioning normally, mitochondria shuttle molecules across the cell that react to produce energy. ‘But FFAs form a kind of pore in the mitochondria releasing and wasting the heat. It’s like connecting up a car battery from postitive to negative- it explodes and all the heat escapes,’ he said.

Even one greasy take-away before hitting the clubs and popping the pills could have the same effect. ‘We didn’t test this but FFAs appear in your bloodstream very quickly after a high fat meal,’ he told Chemistry World.

But Paul Kelly, a clinical neuroscientist from the University of Edinburgh said that although ‘a solid piece of basic research’ the study’s wider implications for human drug abuse were minor. ‘It is important for those of us who try to bridge between basic science with clinical experience to be aware of these findings, but I think it will have little impact upon the population at large or on drug users,’ he said.

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The US consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has piled yet more criticism on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for mismanaging the regulation of Avandia (rosiglitazone), GlaxoSmithKline’s diabetes drug. A meta-analysis published this week in the in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the drug significantly increased the risk of heart attack and death. But the group claims that the FDA was aware of the risks nearly five years ago.

This will come as a blow to the FDA, which has endeavoured to reassure consumers that this time it remains in control of drug regulation. Public confidence in the agency was rocked after the now infamous and ongoing Vioxx case. It released a statement in response to the NEJM article saying that it was in the process of analysing all of the safety data and would convene an advisory committee as soon as possible.

The author of the study, Steven Nissen from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, is no stranger to controversial meta-analyses. He was part of the group of authors that raised initial concerns about Vioxx in a JAMA and he went on the record with his concerns about the risks associated with Avandia in September 2006, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Nissen’s past warnings have proven accurate. GSK has refuted the conclusions of his analysis on this occasion but will no doubt be holding its breath.

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Thought I’d let you know that the h-index chemistry league table which Chemistry World published last month has now been updated with another 30 or so chemists.

(To remind you, the h-index is a number invented by physicist Jorge Hirsch in 2005 in an attempt to fairly measure research impact. A scientist’s h-index is the highest number of papers they have published which have each amassed at least that number of citations from other authors: at number one on the list, E J Corey, with an h of 132, has published 132 papers which have each received at least 132 citations, for example.)

Thanks to all who’ve contacted Henry Schaefer and Amy Peterson at the University of Georgia, US, to suggest additions. You can see the original story and updated list here.

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Achem Asia is organised by Germany’s Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (Dechema), who are also the driving force behind the original European Achema trade show. That explains why there’s such a strong German presence here – 131 out of a total of 505 exhibitors, compared to the Americans and the Brits who have twenty stands each.

According to Dechema’s chairman Alfred Oberholz, speaking at a press conference yesterday, China is now the world’s second largest consumer of chemical products, and the third largest producer of those chemicals, after USA and Japan. Not too surprising, then, that so many people are keen to set up shop here.

German companies are already developing a significant presence in China. Chemical giant BASF made $3.6 billion of sales in China and employs 5,500 people here, while Lurgi (unfortunately-named engineering firm, rather than humorous-yet-fictional disease) are busy building methanol plants here so that Chinese coal reserves can be converted into the easily-transported fuel. You can hear more about that on next month’s podcast, coming up in early June.

Until now, China’s industry has focussed almost entirely on manufacturing using processes developed in other countries. Not owning their own intellectual property is now a major constraint on the growth of Chinese businesses. So if the county wants to be truly competitive, it needs to innovate. And when it innovates, it needs to ensure that the laws that protect intellectual property rights are implemented, so that research can begin to pay its way. It’s no longer a case of foreign companies being hurt by Chinese copyists – local firms are also beginning to feel the pain.

China also needs to put the brakes on its carbon dioxide emissions and environmental pollution. Thankfully, he took care not to wag his finger … those emissions are rising, let’s not forget, so that the country can manufacture 70 per cent of the world’s photocopiers and 55 per cent of our DVD players – in a sense, the rest of the world is increasingly exporting its manufacturing-based emissions to China. ‘We consider that our major contribution consists of providing China with the best, most resource-conserving technologies and processes at our disposal – and then jointly refining them,” Oberholz said.

The motivation is primarily profit, of course – these are businesses after all. But profit doesn’t have to screw the environment. In fact, it’s in everyone’s best interests for China’s growth to be sustainable, so that business can continue as usual.

At the same press conference, the vice president of the Chemical Industry and Engineering Society of China, Gong Qiyi, revealed how the government’s latest ‘Five Year Plan’ for China’s growth demanded significant improvements in energy and water efficiency in industry, and much more recycling of chemical byproducts. Crucially, the petrochemical industry contributed about a quarter of China’s two-trillion-Yuan (£130 bn) industry profits in 2006. If you clean that up, you stand a good chance of mitigating China’s gathering environmental storm.

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The conference kicked off today in some style. We were treated to a military brass band, sweltering under the intense morning sun in full army uniform, knocking out a medley of martial tunes. With gathered dignitaries on a podium next to them, we got some fine words about sustainability and partnership, before the ceremonial cutting of a ribbon, supported by two glamorous assistants swathed in red silk. Then its off inside to the hall, where another pair of glamorous assistants hand out flyers while dressed in full cowboy uniform, including Stetsons and leather chaps. Of course.

Once inside, you can see that this is essentially a trade show, with a few lectures thrown in for good measure. That means most of the attendees are business people, and most of the products are aimed at large-scale production facilities. So what we have, basically, are valves and pumps. Hundreds and hundreds of valves and pumps, of every conceivable design and size. Never having been much of a valve man, I’m more interested by the flashy demonstration devices that dot the vast hall, such as the one rigged up on the Aviteq stand.

They’re a German company whose principle selling point seems to be that they can move anything you like around a production line with vibrations. To prove the point, they have a kit the size of a chest freezer that moves a cargo of lentils and metal washers around and around, up and down, rather like an industrialised version of MC Escher’s monks ascending and descending their staircase.

The cargo jitters along a transparent pipe, tumbles down a slide, jives across a grille to separate the two components, then up a spectacular spiral ramp, before starting all over again. Great – but why not just use conveyor belts? Well, it allows you to move solids through a sealed pipe really quickly; and the compact spiral is much better at helping hot materials to cool down as they ascend, compared to a series of rising hoppers on a belt. Certainly looks neat, anyway, and apparently ideal if you’ve ever wanted to separate large quantities of lentils and washers.

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In the last decade, China has opened up tremendously. Ten years ago, visitors from the RSC attracted a lot of attention on the streets of Beijing simply for being foreigners. Now, my presence hasn’t raised an eyebrow – until today, while taking a morning off to visit the Imperial Summer Palace. Taking a quiet fifteen minutes rest under a tree, I was approached not once but twice by families who wanted to take a picture of me with their children. Deeply odd but all tremendously good-natured, and it was surprisingly nice to be even a little bit of a curiosity here.

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As well as attending the Achem Asia conference, I’m also here to learn as much as I can about chemistry in China. So I spent an interesting afternoon at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT), where fundamental research and practical application come together pretty impressively.

It’s a common lament from both chemists and chemical engineers that the other group simply doesn’t understand them. Mark Haw from Nottingham University wrote a nice Comment piece for Chemistry World outlining why that is, and what can be done to counteract it.

One problem with poor communication between the two groups is that research chemists can often come up with beautiful chemical reactions or wonderful molecules that, in practice, could never be used in the real world for simple engineering reasons that rule out large-scale production.

BUCT tackles that head-on by bringing inorganic, physical, theoretical and materials chemists under the same roof as chemical engineers. They all collaborate on the same projects, and all aspects of developing useful new molecules are addressed in parallel. The approach seems successful – the researchers already have three of their compounds in tonne-scale production by companies set up as a collaboration between the university and government. This may be atypical, of course – BUCT is a ‘State Key Laboratory’, making it one of the top universities in the country for chemistry.

I particularly liked one of the compounds they produce, which is added to the plastic used in greenhouses to help them keep their heat in a little better. It may not sound like much – but it’s a cunning bit of chemistry, and such small economies can help lower heating bills, using less fuel, emitting less carbon dioxide, and producing food a little cheaper. You can here more about the research on our next podcast – coming at the end of May.

Incidentally, while strolling around the BUCT campus, I’m told that during the SARS outbreak a few years ago, students living on campus were quarantined there for several weeks. The idea was to control the feared outbreak – but apparently,love will always conquer epidemiology. Students would flock to the railings at the edge of the campus each evening to embrace their loved ones on the other side, thus guaranteeing a thorough transfer of germs and making the quarantine somewhat futile. Who would have thought pandemic alerts could be so touching …

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Greetings from the Far East. I’m here in Beijing to attend the Achem Asia conference, the biggest meeting in China for the chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biotech industries. When it kicks off on Monday 14 May, the organisers expect about 20,000 people from 27 different countries to attend. The scale and international outlook of the conference is testament to how much investment there has been over the past ten years in Chinese science, both from the government here, and from international companies.

In the days before the conference starts, I’m meeting a variety of people to talk about their scientific research, and the forthcoming launch of Chemistry World: China in September this year. The mag is being distributed to thousands of chemists here in collaboration with the Chinese Chemical Society – here’s a taster of some of the content.

There’s clearly an appetite for it – here in China, science and technology is big news. For example, China Daily (essentially the English-language version of Xinhua, the state’s news agency) is stuffed with research stories, and scientists apparently tend to be held in high regard by the general public. And although my Rough Guide alleges that ‘the only thing you can believe in China Daily is the handy section listing cultural events’, the paper certainly doesn’t shy away from addressing the growing problem of river pollution, giving it a full page special report in today’s edition. Mind you, there’s no mistaking the spin – most of the narratives running like this: ‘it’s a big problem, but officials are closing loopholes, beefing up monitoring, and getting tough on polluters’.

I’m told that the government are certainly taking environmental pollution seriously, but that the problem may now rest more with corrupt local officials who turn a blind eye to violations. It doesn’t help that the costs of cleaning up industrial effluent are often greater than the punitive fines for simply pouring it into a river.

Still, environmental monitoring, ‘clean coal’ technology, water treatment and biofuels all see major sessions at Achem Asia, which may point to a growing eagerness from industries here to tackle the issue too. We’ll see whether that’s the case when things kick off on Monday.

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[just in case you missed this month’s column …]

I always get a kick from consulting old literature references to unearth some long-forgotten method. Even preparing a simple chemical like allyl alcohol was an impressive feat, back in the days when you couldn’t just order it from Aldrich. And how about an entire article devoted to manually solving the X-ray structure of alanine – something that would now be completely routine once took an entire PhD’s-worth of effort.

This all gives me a deep respect for our chemical forefathers. Without the benefit of things like column chromatography they had to resort to purely mechanical methods to purify their chemicals. Ingenious contraptions like the Soxhlet extractor and Dean-Stark trap were born out of necessity.

Despite having no personal experience with this old-time chemistry, I can see that things used to be a lot different around the lab. For starters, the standards for laboratory safety were a lot lower Way Back Then. It’s hard to imagine that smoking in a chemistry lab was ever an acceptable thing to do, or that the sink was a reasonable place to dispose of solvents.

More incredible is the practice of tasting chemicals. I suppose it makes sense, if you consider that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, long before even UV-vis spectroscopy, there were very few ways to characterise a new compound. Melting point, color, density, and taste covered most of the qualities you could observe directly.

An astounding example of why tasting chemicals is a bad idea comes from a paper on chromium compounds dated 1827. In this document the author explains the preparation of chromyl chloride, CrO2Cl2. In addition to the usual toxicity of chromium species, this compound is a ferocious oxidising agent. I find it amusing that immediately after describing its taste (‘sweetish, astringent, and acid’), the author goes on to discuss how it causes nearly every organic material it comes in contact with to either explode or catch on fire.

I have to wonder what it must have been like growing in an era more liberal about chemistry, when it was not uncommon to have a home laboratory in the basement next to the woodworking tools. In an autobiographical sketch, Linus Pauling has described how, as an 11-year old boy, he obtained 10 grammes of potassium cyanide for an insect-killing bottle. In those days you could get pure chemicals from the corner drug store. In Oliver Sacks’ memoir Uncle Tungsten, he recalls how he used to take a train to the Finchley suburb of London to visit a chemical supply house to stock his own home laboratory. Sacks was motivated by nothing more than intense curiosity about chemistry, but it’s remarkable that a young child was able to walk into a shop and buy things like potassium metal or nitric acid with impunity.

Robert Woodward had a similar childhood, where he repeated chemistry experiments from a textbook that gave instructions on how to generate chlorine gas, among other things. I’ve seen some of these vintage texts, and the cavalier manner in which they describe the fun of making explosive nitrogen triiodide is striking.

One has to wonder if Pauling, Sacks and Woodward would have ended up like they did if it were not for the very early hands-on experience they got with chemistry. Today’s chemistry sets may be safer, but they’re also a lot more boring.

I have a modern chemistry set of my own sitting in a closet, which I keep mostly for novelty purposes. A miniscule bottle of sodium carbonate is about the most dangerous material it contains. And experiments like ‘distillation of water’ aren’t nearly as thrilling as a nitrogen triiodide bang.

The combination of environmental, health, and general societal concerns about chemicals falling into the wrong hands has made chemistry as a hobby all but impossible. Real chemistry is now essentially inaccessible unless a person is willing to dedicate years of study to the subject. It’s unlikely the world will see another child prodigy like Woodward – at least, not one that’s proficient in anything more than a baking soda volcano.

Dylan Stiles is a PhD student in California, US.

Read more Chemistry World columns here.

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