January 2008



Leading cosmetic companies including L’Oreal and Unilever have stopped using shark liver oil as a moisturising base, according to a report in today’s Guardian. It seems that squalene, which has been used as an emollient for many years, has been gradually phased out by many cosmetic companies over the past few years due to concern over the survival of the sharks. The companies will replace it with a plant-derived compound. Environmental advocacy group Oceana which has been campaigning against the use of squalene, released an announcement welcoming the decision.

Leafscale gulper shark - fished for squalene from its liver

Leafscale gulper shark – fished for squalene from its liver

From the Oceana press release:

‘Squalene is an organic compound found in certain animal and plant sources, and is used as an emollient in various cosmetic products, such as creams, lotions and glosses. Squalene oil can be harvested from the livers of sharks, where it is found in great quantities. Deep-sea sharks (those living in ocean depths of 300 to 1500 metres) have especially large reserves of squalene, as their livers can comprise up to one-third of the weight of the entire animal. Consequently, deep-sea sharks are often caught specifically for their squalene oil. The excessive catches of these animals have contributed to dramatic population declines of certain species, some of which are on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Oceana has been campaigning to end the wasteful deep-sea gillnet fishery for sharks in the Northeast Atlantic since 2005.’

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Good news for anyone who wants to ingest nanotubes: a study by Hongjie Dai published in this week’s PNAS says that although the tubes do end up in vital organs (in mice, at least), they are also excreted, leaving happy, healthy mice. The relevant bits of the Stanford press release are below – note the last quote, a telling reminder of how little we know about the biological activity of nanomaterials.

<<start cut>>

Carbon nanotubes-cylinders so tiny that it takes 50,000 lying side by side to equal the width of a human hair-are packed with the potential to be highly accurate vehicles for administering medicines and other therapeutic agents to patients. But a dearth of data about what happens to the tubes after they discharge their medical payloads has been a major stumbling block to progress.

Now, Stanford researchers, who spent months tracking the tiny tubes inside mice, have found some answers.

Studies in mice already had shown that most nanomaterials tend to accumulate in organs such as the liver and spleen, which was a concern because no one knew how long they could linger. But fears that the tiny tubes might be piling up in vital organs, like discarded refrigerators at the bottom of a rural ravine, can now be put to rest, said Hongjie Dai, the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Chemistry at Stanford, whose research team has demonstrated that the nanotubes exit the organs.

Dai and his group found that the carbon nanotubes leave the body primarily through the feces, with some by way of the urine. “That`s nice to know,“ Dai said. “This now proves that they do get out of the system.“

The full extent of the news, which is scheduled to be published the week of Jan. 28 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition (PNAS), is even better than that: The three-month-long study also allays worries that the nanotubes, by simply remaining in the organs for a long time, would prove toxic to the mouse.

“None of the mice died or showed any anomaly in the blood chemistry or in the main organs,“ said Dai, senior author on the PNAS paper. “They appear very healthy, and they are gaining weight, just like normal mice. There`s no obvious toxicity observed.“ The lack of toxicity of nanotubes in mice is consistent with a previous pilot study done by Sanjiv Gambhir, a professor of radiology at Stanford, and his research group in collaboration with Dai`s group.

“This is the first time anyone has done a systematic circulation and excretion study like this for nanotubes, and data on other nano particles is also scarce,“ Dai said.

<<end cut>>

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CW facebook pageChemistry World now has its own facebook group – for our socially-networked readers.

We’re hoping to post some previews of future issues and get to know our readers and what they like about the magazine.

You’ll have to have a facebook account to join, though.

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Thecommercialchemist

In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover cartels and subpoenas, reformed EU emissions trading, and the Vytorin study fall-out.

Chemical Industry

Another rubber fine:
The European Commission has fined German chemicals firm Bayer, and Japan’s Zeon, for colluding to fix the price of synthetic rubber products between 2000 and 2002. Bayer has been told to pay 28.87 million euros (£21.42 million), and Zeon will be fined 5.36 million euros. In early December 2007, Bayer escaped being fined for chloroprene rubber price fixing by blowing the whistle on the six member cartel, which had also included Dow and DuPont.

EU extends emissions trading:
Proposals unveiled on 23 January for reform of the EU emissions trading system (ETS) will impact on the chemicals sector by extending the system to hitherto exempted activities and to nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. The changes are part of a package of proposals aimed at achieving a 20 per cent cut in EU greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Teesside investment:
Plans to build a new £2 billion crude oil processing plant on Teesside, UK, are gathering pace, with the announcement that SONHOE has reached agreements with GE Oil and Gas, and Chevron Lummus Global, to buy various pieces of key equipment, from reactors to hydrocrackers.

Medical and Pharmaceuticals

Thalidomide returns to Europe:
The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) has recommended approval of thalidomide to treat bone marrow cancer – almost 50 years after it was withdrawn as a treatment for morning sickness after causing birth defects in thousands of children. The decision, a boost for the drug’s US makers Pharmion, follows similar approvals in other countries including the US and Australia. The decision to approve the drug was seen to be more sensitive in Europe, where the drug had been most heavily marketed for morning sickness. The Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) will install a number of measures to ensure the drug is not taken by pregnant women.

Vytorin prescriptions slide:
US pharmaceutical companies Merck and Schering-Plough, who jointly market Vytorin, have pulled their TV ads for the drug, which say that the combination drug fights both genetic and dietary causes of high cholesterol. The companies recently released data from a study which showed the drug was no more effective at slowing artery clogging than a cheaper generic. US prescriptions for the drug fell by about 9.5 per cent in the week following the news.

Vytorin advert

Amgen Subpoena:
US biotech pharmaceutical company Amgen has been ordered to provide documents to the New Jersey Attorney General, following accusations the company marketed psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel for off-label uses, and violated patient privacy laws.

Tekturna approval:
Switzerland-based drug company Novartis has won FDA approval for a combination blood-pressure lowering drug based on Tekturna. The medicine combines Tekturna, released last year and a potential blockbuster, with a diuretic called HCT – the combined therapy works better than either drug alone.

Roche strikes Ventana deal:
US diagnostics maker Ventana Medical Systems has finally signed a deal to be acquired by Roche, almost a year after the Swiss firm made its first unsolicited bid for the company. Ventana finally agreed to recommend to shareholders a $89.50 (£45.10) per share offer – up from an initial bid of $75 per share – which makes the deal worth $3.4 billion.

Teva moves into biologics:
Israel-based generic drug maker Teva Pharmaceuticals has agreed to buy US biopharmaceuticals firm CoGenesys for $400 million in cash. CoGenesis’s pipeline of protein-based drugs include treatments for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Generic drug companies are currently racing to develop generic versions of biologic drugs, a potentially lucrative market – but biogenerics are far harder to demonstrate as identical to the original than with small molecule-based drugs, and the US currently has no mechanism for such drugs to gain approval.

EU Avandia restrictions:
The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) has strengthened its warnings for GSK’s diabetes drug Avandia, following evidence that the drug can increase the risk of heart disease. The EMEA move follows similar action by the FDA in November 2007.

Agrochemicals

Firms face possible World Bank debarment:
Several European chemicals companies, including Bayer and BASF, are alleged to have colluded in overcharging a World Bank-funded antimalarial programme in India intended to improve the health of the country’s poor. The firms face possible action by the bank and the Indian government, depending on the findings of further investigations. A World Bank report alleges that the companies, which also include Aventis CropScience (now owned by Bayer) and Zeneca Agrochemicals (now called Syngenta), rotated between them the contract award to supply mosquito pesticide pyrethroid.

China Biotech:
Germany’s BASF Plant Science has agreed a cooperation and licensing agreement with the National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS), Beijing, China. The deal is focussed on the development of transgenic crops based on NIBF’s discovery of a family of genes that increase crop yield, in staples such as corn, soybeans and rice. The deal sees BASF receive exclusive rights to commercialise the crops outside China.

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The government is to restore the word ‘science’ to the name of the House of Commons select committee responsible for scrutinising government scientific policy – emphasising the importance of the task.

‘Science’ was lost when the well-regarded House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was dissolved, following the departmental shake-up when Gordon Brown first became Prime Minister. The group was subsumed into the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee, following the establishment of the Department of the same name – sparking fears that science and technology would be relegated to sub-committee status, losing powers and funding.

By renaming the group the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, the government says it is recognising the importance of having a cross-departmental watchdog to monitor science policy.

The government have also announced a £140 million increase in funding for the teaching of science and maths over the next three years, in a bid to attract the next generation into careers in science. The money will primarily be used to attract and train specialist teachers in chemistry, physics and maths, and will also be used in efforts to increase the numbers of students studying these subjects post-16. ‘I want more science in action in the classroom, more flash bang to enthuse budding scientists,’ said Schools Minister Jim Knight.

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<This editorial appears in the February ’08 edition of Chemistry World magazine>

Physics is embroiled in a funding crisis. In both the UK and US, scientists have seen unexpectedly harsh budget settlements by government, which will halt research projects and force job cuts.
The saga illustrates a worrying trend of short-term thinking in public science funding. Back in March 2007, the UK research councils saw a sudden loss of £68 million from their budgets (see Chemistry World, April 2007, p10), as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) tried to mitigate its own overspending. Although a relatively small proportion of the total science budget, the last-minute cut meant that many research projects had to be put on ice with no warning.
Then in December, the UK’s Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius), which last year took over responsibility for science from the DTI, snatched £92 million from the Medical Research Council, which the MRC had earned by exploiting intellectual property and planned to plough back into research (see p8).
The recent budget settlement in the US (see p13) has also hammered science, seeing funding cuts in real terms across all the major science agencies.
And the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which oversees physics research and infrastructure such as the Diamond synchrotron light source, announced on 11 December that it faced a shortfall of £80 million over the next three years. The cause of the shortfall is still uncertain, although physicists have blamed both government and the STFC for bungling the budget.
What’s clearer is that the STFC could be forced to cut 25 per cent of its university physics grants and withdraw from a number of international projects, such as the International Linear Collider. The Daresbury Laboratory in Warrington – a synchrotron source famed amongst British chemists for its excellent x-ray facilities, and rather less excellent canteen – is said to be particularly vulnerable, having been told to find savings of £6.5 million.
Once again, it is not necessarily the size of the shortfall, but the suddenness of the axe, which is so worrying. And the damage will reach far beyond what is traditionally considered to be physics. The ISIS spallation neutron source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire – used by about 10 000 scientists every year, and expected to cut £12 million from its budget – is vital for research into hydrogen storage materials, for example. Big science facilities in America are also expecting similar job losses and cuts in beam time.
Capricious cuts hurt all sciences, whether dependent on these facilities or not. It sends out the message that science is a luxury that can be switched on and off like a tap.
It is not. Science is an absolute necessity, and to erode the science base is to undermine our chances of finding solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.
As Chemistry World goes to press, MPs on the House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills committee are reviewing the STFC budget allocations. This will be the committee’s biggest test since it was formed following the reorganisation of government departments in July 2007 (see Chemistry World, August 2007, p8).
If they cannot help to resolve the STFC crisis, science as a whole will suffer.

Sign the petition to reverse the STFC budget settlement here

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Top carnivorous plant story of the week: Nepenthes alata – also known as the pitcher plant for its bottle-shaped leaves – is a killer. It attracts insects with a sweet-smelling chemical broth and then dissolves the poor, unsuspecting creatures as they fall, intoxicated into the depths of its inescapable trap.

The insect-dissolving pitcher plant

The insect-dissolving pitcher plant

This evil and rather exciting green carnivore has now had its secret recipe revealed by scientists in Japan, who have separated the proteins by gel electrophoresis and matched them to proteins in a public database. Simple as that.

Evil plant proteome

Evil plant proteome

Apparently, some of the proteins inhibit bacterial growth, allowing the plant to absorb as much nutrition as possible from its tiny victim. Nice.

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Thecommercialchemist

In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover the latest in a spate of chemical plant accidents, EU raids on Big Pharma, and the latest in ‘green’ cars from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Chemical Industry

BASF Europe:
BASF has completed its conversion into a European Company (SE – Societas Europaea) – becoming the first chemical company to do so. The conversion means BASF will operate under the same laws across all 27 EU member states, meaning lower legal and administration costs, plus easier cross-boarder mergers with other companies in Europe.

Ineos investment:
UK chemicals group Ineos has agreed to buy BP‘s vinyl acetate monomer and ethyl acetate businesses. The deal comprises two 250ktpa plants near Hull, UK, which had sales of around £400 million in 2007.

China chemical plant explosions:
An explosion and fire at a chemical plant in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China has left seven people dead, and 33 injured, seven critically. The fire was caused by sulfur powder which exploded when being loaded in front of a storage facility at the fertiliser plant. The investigations into the exact cause of the incident are ongoing – as is the probe into a 15 January blast and subsequent fire in a dimethyl silicone factory in Zhejiang Province, which killed four.

BP worker killed:
A supervisor at BP’s Texas City, US refinery has been killed during the restart of the plant’s Ultracracker unit. The man, who died of head injuries after a metal lid designed to contain 175 pounds per inch pressure blew off, is the third to die at the plant since the 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers, triggering a 6 month shut-down. The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has announced it will investigate the latest accident.

Carbon trading:
The UK Carbon Trust has said that certain parts of the chemical industry are particularly exposed to the impact of the EU emissions trading scheme. The group particularly highlight fertilizers and ammonia, and inorganic basic chemicals, as sectors that should receive a compensating rate of free credit allocation, as both are highly electricity-intensive.

Energy

Toyota’s green card:
Presenting at the Detroit motor show, Toyota, the world’s biggest car maker, has set out its plans to develop biofuel and battery-powered cars for the mass-market. The company is expanding its lithium battery join venture with Panasonic, and says it will have a plug-in, lithium battery-equipped, hybrid vehicle on the market by 2010 is to invest more money into research seeking to produce ethanol fuel from wood waste.

plug-in prius

Biofuels in Detroit:
US car firm General Motors is investing in a start-up biofuels company that claims it can produce ethanol for under half the current wholesale price. Coskata says it can make ethanol from virtually any carbon-based feedstock, including agricultural and municipal waste, by first converting it to syngas, which microorganisms then turn into ethanol.

Fuel cell stake:
Energy giant and British Gas-owner Centrica has agreed to buy 10 per cent of fuel cell company Ceres Power for £20 million. Ceres, a spin-out of Imperial College London, has developed a fuel cell-based combined hear and power device for domestic homes. The Centrica deal gives British Gas exclusive rights to sell the device to residential customers in the UK.

No Australian uranium for India:
Kevin Rudd’s new Labor government in Australia has said it will not sell uranium to India, unless New Delhi signs the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The decision follows Labor’s pre-election promise to end uranium sales to non-members of the treaty, and reverses a decision to sell uranium to India made by the previous Liberal government.

Medical and Pharmaceuticals

EU drug inquiry:
EU regulators have raided some of the world’s largest drug companies, including Pfizer and GSK, over an inquiry into whether they have conspired to reduce competition from generic versions of their drugs. Investigators will assess whether the firms misuse patent law to block competition, including through patent filings and lawsuits to hold off generic competition when their drug patents expire.

Generic benefit:
US pharma firms Merck and Schering-Plough have said that trials show joint venture cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin doesn’t slow heart disease any better than cheaper generics. The long-awaited results were from a trial comparing simple statins with Vytorin, a combination of a statin with a drug that blocks LDL (‘bad cholesterol’) from being taken up in the gut. While generic statins can cost less than $1 per pill, Vytorin costs around $3.

GSK UK:
GlaxoSmithKline will be run from London from May 2008, when new CEO Andrew Witty takes charge of the company. Current chief, JP Garnier, who has run the company since its formation in 2001, is based in Philadelphia, US. The company officially operates with ‘dual headquarters’ in the two cities.

Authorised generics:
US drug company Merck will sell an authorised generic of its osteoporosis blockbuster Fosamax, which will lose patent protection on 6 February 2008. The drug will be made by a yet to be named generics manufacturer, and will go on sale against copies of the drug made by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Barr Pharmaceuticals. Under US law, Teva and Barr had been given six months exclusive rights to sell generic Fosamax as the first companies to file for FDA approval – but will now also face competition from Merck. Such authorised-generic deals are being investigated by the US Federal Trade Commission, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Inhaled insulin trial abandoned:
Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk has cancelled development of its inhaled insulin system AERx, currently in late-stage clinical trials – just three months after Pfizer withdrew Exubera, its equivalent product, due to poor sales. Novo and Pfizer’s decisions will focus extra attention on Eli Lilly, soon to launch it’s own inhaled insulin product called AIR.

Transatlantic cooperation:
European and Canadian drug regulators have agreed to exchange confidential information on the safety of medicines. The agreement is aimed at better protecting public health, and increasing the speed of response should concerns about a drug be raised.
Agrochemicals

Chilled out crops:
Syngenta will partner with Rohm and Haas subsidiary AgroFresh to develop and commercialise Invinsa – the first product to protect crop yield in stressed plants. The active ingredient, 1-methylcyclopropene, blocks the effects of natural plant hormone ethylene, which causes negative responses including wilting and chlorophyll loss in heat- or drought-stresses crops.

Invinsa

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Squirrels: the pesky little critters keep destroying my lovingly filled garden bird feeders, but I can’t help but admire their determination and cunning (and they are quite cute).

This week, a study by researchers at UC Davis in the US gave me further cause to respect the mischievous, fluffy-tailed rodents. In a chemical defence against one of their predators – the rattlesnake, ground squirrels apply the snake’s scent to their bodies by chewing on shed rattlesnake skins and licking their fur.

And it seems to work; further study showed that the rattlesnakes were less attracted to ground squirrel scent mixed with rattlesnake scent than they were to ground squirrel scent alone. They may be rats in cute outfits, but respect where it’s due.

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Appearing in the Chemical Technology inbox yesterday afternoon:

‘T-post is a wearable magazine. Subscribing to T-post is a lot like having a subscription to a magazine but instead of receiving magazines in your mailbox – you receive T-shirts.

As a subscriber you receive a new t-shirt based on a current news item every six weeks. Select designers provide their interpretation of a specific news story and that design is combined with the actual news which is printed on the inside of the shirt.
[…]
T-post started back in 2004 from a desire to re-wire the structures of news communication.

While concepting ways to engage people in important topics, our favourite garment, the T-shirt, quickly came up and seemed like an ideal media for our aspiration. T-shirts inspire conversation, and when you ad a story to them, you get people thinking; you create a buzz. By combining a magazine subscription with a T-shirt we’re able to utilize the attention and commitment accustom to the ‘fashion world’ while communicating interesting and important news topics. It all started out as an experiment. Today
we’re sending our issues to over 50 countries.’

Readers wishing to subscribe can visit T-post themselves. Would any of you be interested in a wearable version of Chemistry World, that’s what I want to know!

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