September 2007



It’s a competitive business, but one common goal has brought seven major pharmaceutical companies together in a non-for-profit consortium to develop genetic tests for adverse drug reactions.

The research group, which includes and Pfizer and GSK is called the Serious Adverse Events Consortium (SAEC). It will aim to develop genetic tests for two conditions: drug-related liver toxicity; and a rare drug-related skin condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

Such tests would mean that patients could be screened for risks before they are given a drug. The aim also is eventually to use the data from these tests to design drugs that are less likely to cause such serious adverse reactions.

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The US Environmental Protection Agency has issued an interesting Federal Register Notice explaining why machines that use silver ions to kill bacteria will now be regulated as pesticides.

What’s interesting is how the EPA very carefully distinguishes silver ions from nanotechnology:

“While recent press articles have referred to [a] silver ion generating washing machine as a product of nanotechnology, EPA has not yet received any information that suggests that this product uses nanotechnology. EPA will evaluate any applications to register this type of equipment according to the same regulatory standards as any other pesticide. The notice does not represent an action to regulate nanotechnology.”

In other words: IONS ARE NOT NANOPARTICLES! as I too often find myself repeating when I see stories about nano-silver. If you’re not aware of the history behind this particular case, the EPA got stung by the misunderstanding last November, when it moved to regulate Samsung’s ‘silver-nano’ [sic] washing machine as a pesticide. Unfortunately that got translated by many prominent media outlets as the first ever regulation on nanoproducts – of course, as the EPA are now making clear, nanotechnology wasn’t involved, despite Samsung’s marketing hype.

Making clear the divide between ions and nanoparticles is not too subtle or too anal to be worth making an issue of. It is just one small [nano? ;)] symptom of a wider disease – misunderstanding of nanotechnology – but I think every corner is worth fighting.

For more in-depth discussion on nano-hype, David Berube’s blog is an excellent showcase of work on public communication about nanotechnology. Highly recommended.

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A shortage of chlorine has crippled efforts to control the growing cholera epidemic in Iraq. Last week the New York Times reported that the disease had reached Baghdad and since then, the World Health Organisation has confirmed two cases in the capital.

Iraqi authorities suspended imports of the gas after insurgents used it in bomb attacks.

Without treatment, the disease can kill within hours, but is easily preventable by chlorinating water supplies – killing the Vibrio cholerae bacteria that cause it. The Basra health ministry has reported that some water treatment plants in the city have now completely run out of chlorine.

The outbreak initially hit the north of the country – in total, more than 2000 cases have been confirmed by the WHO, although the fatality rate has so far been less than 1 per cent.

The WHO said that the need for replenishment of supplies of chlorination products in Iraq was now urgent.

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BP and MIT have announced a new research partnership centred on energy conversion technologies, worth at least $5m per year for five years. BP will be the inaugural member of the MIT Energy Initiative (MIT EI), providing a “flagship” energy research program and supporting ten BT-MIT Energy Fellows. The MIT EI aims to explore methods of converting coal and petcoke to liquid fuels and electricity whilst keeping carbon dioxide emissions to a minimum.

BP were recently at the centre of controversy regarding the funding of the Energy Biosciences Institute at University of California at Berkeley, where the faculty and students claimed to have very little warning of or input into the decision to accept BP’s terms. Staff at UCB also fear that the petrol giant will have too much influence over research and too much control over results.

BP also funds the UK’s Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), giving £5m per year. The ETI is estimated to be in full operation by 2008.

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An ACS press release stimulated some slightly misleading coverage of the toxic effects of combining two favourite hangover cures: paracetamol and caffeine.

The related article, published in the ACS journal Chemical Research in Toxicology studied the interaction of the two drugs and found that, in the presence of caffeine, paracetamol (acetaminophen) is metabolised more quickly into its liver-damaging, toxic metabolite, n-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI). This means that in combination, a cup of coffee and an Anadin is bad for your liver, right?

Well not quite. The University of Washington team’s study was carried out in bacteria. The human enzyme that oxidises paracetamol in the liver, P450 3A4, was expressed in e. coli, which were then dosed with huge quantities of both drugs.

The researchers showed that caffeine influences how paracetamol interacts with the enzyme – increasing the production of this toxic metabolite. But this newly discovered mechanism in bacteria is a far cry from a human liver, and even further from a whole human being succumbing to one headache pill with their morning coffee.

For this reason, we decided not to cover it, but the press release clearly served its purpose in that it was picked up immediately by Sky and, in a more balanced report, by the BBC.

The researchers themselves have not presented their study as evidence that together, caffeine and paracetamol are fundamentally dangerous. Publicising this article, by tagging it as a warning about the health effects of headache tablets and coffee, at least got a very interesting bit of chemistry into the press. So I wanted to open this one up for discussion: should such studies be press released in this way?

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Two US scientists have suggested that the kilogram needs to be redefined – again. Chemistry World previously reported the possible replacement of the International Prototype Kilogram, kept under strictly controlled conditions, which has weighed heavily on the minds of those who note its mass has changed by up to 50 micrograms in its 118 year life. The “Avogadro Project” hoped to redefine Avogadro’s number to a suitable degree of conformity that a derived kilogram might be obtained.

Ronald F. Fox and Theodore P. Hill of the Georgia Institute of Technology say this method would still be inaccurate when compared to their redefinition. Assigning Avogadro’s number to one of several values within a reasonable experimental range, they would take the gram as one twelfth of the mass of one mole of 12C – tying in with the original molar method of obtaining the number.

The last yardstick (kiloweight?) of unit standardisation may yet reach its demise at the hands of mathematicians, although Tesco selling 84446886^3 12C mol of bananas is for now, mercifully, a distant view.

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Chemistry World brings you two exclusive stories about scientific disputes this week. First up, on Friday we reported the surprising argument that growing and burning many biofuel crops may actually raise, rather than lower, greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the conclusion of a new study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen (best known for his work on the ozone layer).

Crutzen and his colleagues have calculated that growing some of the most commonly used biofuel crops releases around twice the amount of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O, also known as ‘laughing gas’) than previously thought – wiping out any benefits from not using fossil fuels and, worse, probably contributing to global warming.

The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuels are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto,’ Keith Smith, a co-author on the paper and atmospheric scientist from the University of Edinburgh, told us. ‘What we are saying is that [growing many biofuels] is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse.’ 

You can read our full story here – let us know what you think. The Crutzen paper itself is currently subject to open review in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an interactive open journal, so you can have a look at it for free, and some learned comments, here.

Second, another fascinating dispute: back in January, scientists led by Robin Hicks at the University of Victoria claimed to have discovered a metal-organic magnet which was magnetic all the way up to room temperature and stable in air. As we explained at the time, this was really something of a dream for magnetochemists, so it was very exciting, and published in Nature, no less. However, since then, US chemists have challenged the findings, saying the apparent metal-organic molecular magnets are nothing more than small lumps of nickel.

Whether or not this is true, there are some interesting stories to be told in this field! My favourite is the 2001 report of room temperature magnetic carbon buckyballs (C60), from a team led by Tatiana Makarova, a Russian physicist working at Sweden’s Umea University. The possibility that her results were due to contamination, Makarova told Discover magazine in 2002, was ‘approximately equal to the possibility that a monkey at a computer will type a Shakespearean sonnet’. But after researchers discovered samples of iron metal in the samples, the report was retracted in March 2006, though Makarova declined to sign the retraction.

You can read the full details of the magnet story here.

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German and American scientists have discovered anaerobic bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico that metabolise propane and n-butane, constituents of natural gas, for sustenance. Although there are already known examples of aerobic bacteria which do this, in addition to anaerobic bacteria that metabolise longer chains (>6C), these are the first to particularly thrive on natural gas. The short-chain alkanes are converted to sulphates, which the bacteria can oxidise further for energy. Aside from providing a possible explanation for observed natural gas deficiencies worldwide, the chemistry involved in the metabolism may allow synthetic chemists to selectively functionalise short-chain hydrocarbons.

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Farm run-off washing into lakes and ponds is causing mass deformities in North American frogs, US scientists say.

Frog with extra legs © PNAS

With amphibian numbers crashing worldwide in the past two decades, scientists have been scrambling to work out exactly what is triggering the decline. Suggestions for the cause of the decline range from habitat destruction to disease to agrochemicals run-off. Now Pieter Johnson and colleagues have established the link between farm run-off of fertilizers and animal waste and the frog decline.

The frogs’ troubles aren’t caused directly by the run-off, but by a microscopic, worm-like parasite called a trematode. This beast has a series of hosts in its lifecycle, the first being snail. The farm run-off of nutrients boosts algal growth, so snail numbers go up as they have plenty to eat. All these happy snails mean lots of hosts for the trematode, which then go on to infect the frogs, causing the deformity. These deformities actually benefit the parasite, as the deformed frogs are easy prey for birds, which are the parasites’ final host.

snails and algae © PNAS

The team go on to suggest that the same mechanism of shifting food webs could be behind the increased incidence of multi-host parasites affecting humans, from malaria to cholera.

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The University of Massachusetts Amherst and partners have announced the launch of the National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN), funded by the National Science Foundation. This open access network will allow academic, governmental and industrial bodies to share information and collaborate on nanomanufacturing projects, and provides an online “clearinghouse” for new ideas and research.

Meanwhile, a Royal Society-led committee has released a proposed draft of the “Responsible NanoCode”, a voluntary set of guidelines aimed at standardising the operation of nanotechnology-centred organisations. The seven principles detailed include procedures involding operational, environmental and ethical responsibility, compiled by representatives from many different organisations.

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