March 2008



From Durham to Rotterdam: I spent Friday at Unilever’s centre of excellence for structural emulsions. It’s the first in a series of six centres that will be opened this year.

I now have a new-found respect for margarine. Unilever’s chemists in Rotterdam have made it their mission to have toast and sandwich-lovers reduce their fat intake – using some clever chemistry. With supercritical CO2, fat crystals can be blasted into smaller pieces, giving them more surface area to maintain the structural integrity of whatever emulsion they are providing support for. This means margarine can be made with less fat, but it won’t collapse into an oily heap.

Apparently the tastiness factor is tested with an annual cake baking contest to see if sunflower oil-based spreads make treats as tasty as butter. Sadly that wasn’t taking place during my visit.

But I did visit what must be the world’s fattest sculpture – made entirely of monoglyceride emulsifiers. Although it is a temporary installation, and it’s clearly tricky material as the dad of the emulsifier family (pictured below) is now missing an arm. Still, not bad for a big lump of fat.

A big fat sculpture

A big fat sculpture

(And it’s not being wasted – the bulk of the sculpture is underneath the moulded part it still fully packaged and will be made into margarine.)

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The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has said that it is to cut 3-5 per cent of the research that it funds over the next three years. In January, Chemistry World reported that the research council could cut science despite netting an 18.6 per cent increase to its budget because money had been earmarked from the budget for programmes to address government priorities. The EPSRC – like other research councils – is also now paying universities infrastructure costs when it awards grants. That means the cost of each grant has doubled, placing further pressure on tight resources.
At a recent open meeting of its council, David Delpy, EPSRC’s chief executive said that the council would not cut the number of PhD places it funds – but investigator-led funding (blue skies research) could be cut by 12-15 per cent (or around £120 million over 2008-11).

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Chemistry World is looking for a Business Editor – an experienced journalist who’s familiar with the chemical or pharmaceutical industry and keen to find a new and high-profile challenge. You’ll have the freedom to shape our new business news section and regular business features, ensuring that the publication continues to have a wide reach beyond academia. Read more about the job here.

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The Italian government is to withdraw from sale mozzarella contaminated with carcinogenic dioxins. Cheeses exceeding permitted levels of dioxin have been found from 25 of 130 producers in the Campania area near Naples, says the Italian health ministry – where the country’s top quality buffalo mozzarella is produced.

mozzarella

Following the dioxin discovery, Japan and South Korea have banned imports of the cheese, and France has ordered it off shop shelves, although the Brits say there’s no immediate risk to consumers, according to the BBC.

The source of the dioxins is believed to be toxic waste, either illegally dumped in the area or contaminating the buffalo herd’s grazing land through fall-out after being burnt during the recent Naples rubbish crisis.

Looks like it’s best to deny your inner gourmet, and stick to the cheaper stuff made with cows milk for now, then.

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Thecommercialchemist

In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover DuPont’s legal wrangle with Invista, the FDA’s latest moves on drug safety, and falling US gasoline use as ethanol production ramps up.

Chemical Industry

Ineos sells Packed Chlorine:
UK chemicals group Ineos has announced it is to sell its Packed Chlorine business to BOC (now owned by Germany’s Linde Group), for an undisclosed sum. The business specialised in production, packaging and delivery of chlorine liquefied gas, which is predominantly used for water purification and as a chemical intermediate.

DuPont sued:
US polymer and fibres company Invista has sued chemical maker DuPont for $800 million (£401 million), claiming that plants it bought from DuPont in 2004 did not meet safety and environmental compliance standards. Invista says it has spent $140 million to investigate and remediate problems at the 14 plants, which are based in the US, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and Brazil, plus will have to spend up to $450 million more at the US plants. DuPont has countered that the ‘allegations lack merit‘.

Isocyanate sale:
Chemical firms Rhodia and LyondellBasell have entered into exclusive negotiations to sell their joint isocyanates businesses to Sweden’s Perstorp Group. The sale includes Rhodia’s aliphatic isocyanates business, used in paints and coatings, and Lyondell’s aromatic isocyanates, which are used in polyurethane foam production.

Pharmaceuticals

MicroRNAs validated:
Copenhagen, Denmark-based Santaris Pharma have published in Nature the first demonstration of microRNA silencing in non-human primates (African Green Monkeys) – which the company claims validates its programme to develop novel therapeutics to silence microRNAs associated with disease. MicroRNAs are short, single-stranded RNA molecules that regulate gene expression by binding to messenger RNA.

Monkey

Credit: RxGen

FDA updates stent advice:
The US Food and Drug Administration has updated its guidelines for manufacturers seeking approval of drug-eluting stents – two years after studies showed that such devices, used to prop open arteries after surgery, can increase the risk of life-threatening blood clots. Among the draft recommendations, companies should be prepared to continue monitoring patients for any sign of blood clots or other adverse effects for up to five years after approval. Such long-term studies can cost companies millions of dollars.

Heparin contaminant identified:
The FDA says that the contaminant found in the batches of blood-thinning drug heparin linked with 19 deaths is hypersulfated chondroitin sulfate, which mimics heparin in potency assays and safety tests. Hypersulfated chondroitin sulfate is not found naturally, and the US regulator is continuing to investigate whether the material was added accidentally or deliberately. Meanwhile, heparin products in France, Italy and Denmark have also been recalled because they contain, or are suspected to contain, the same contaminant.

FDA deadlines could compromise safety:
The time constraints placed on the FDA to speed the approval of new drugs may be compromising safety by forcing the regulator to rush through approvals, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Harvard team report that drugs approved right up to government-set deadlines are two to three times more likely to be pulled from shelves due to safety concerns, and two to seven times more likely to be given a ‘black box’ safety label.

Acomplia approved for NHS:
France’s Sanofi-Aventis has received UK approval from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) for obesity drug Acomplia, making the treatment available through the NHS. The drug had once been predicted to reach blockbuster status, but concerns that the drug may be linked to suicidal thoughts restricted 2007 sales to €79 million (£62 million), and the drug has failed to achieve approval for sale in the US.

FDA safety analysis:

The FDA has announced that the manufacturers of 25 drugs and biologics that are already approved for sale must now submit a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS). The safety plans are intended to manage the risks of drugs with known safety concerns. Under new laws passed in 2007, the FDA says it is now explicitly required to demand REMS for drugs of concern, including those already on the market – some drugs on the list of 25 were approved as far back as 1982.

Merck’s biggest seller in safety probe:
US pharmaceutical company Merck’s inhaled asthma and allergy drug Singulair is to be investigated by the FDA, following reports linking the drug to suicide and changes in mood and behaviour. Analysts are not predicting that the FDA review will lead to curb the drug’s use, and Merck has defended the drug, which has been on the market for 10 years. Singulair earned $4.27 billion worldwide in 2007.

Energy

Ethanol production barrels along:
The US government’s Energy Information Administration has released figures showing that US petroleum use is set to fall during 2008, thanks to the increase in ethanol use. Although the country’s consumption of liquid fuels and other petroleum products – 20.7 million barrels per day in 2007 – is set to rise by 40,000 barrels a day in 2008, petroleum consumption will actually fall by 90,000 barrels per day due to increased ethanol use.

oil barrel

Petrol from plant sugars:
Shell has announced a joint R&D project with US company Virent, aimed at converting plant sugars into gasoline and gasoline blend components, rather than into ethanol. Such biofuels could be used in standard engines at higher blend rates than ethanol. The process uses Virent’s catalysts to convert the plant sugars into hydrocarbons.

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The Bioscience for Business meeting (High value products from nature unifying bioproduction – to give it its full title) in picturesque Durham has just drawn to a close. It’s been an interesting 48 hour insight into the biotech community – everything from biofuels to drugs extracted from Amazonian plants.

Durham

Durham

The bioeconomy (now my buzzword for this week) is growing at an impressive rate. According to Dirk Carrez from EuropaBio, almost 7 per cent of the European chemicals industry is now ‘bio-based’ and that will increase to 10 per cent by 2010.

A presentation from Mark Harvey of the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation on the socio-economic impacts of biorefinery – principally biofuels – sparked a lively debate yesterday. John Sime, director of Bioscience for Business, told me that he included this presentation from a social scientist in the opening session of the meeting to stop the scientists from immediately launching into a debate on the comparitive merits and shortcomings of biofuels (biodiesel bad, bioethanol good etc.). Sime’s own view is that the future lies in marine crops – which are faster to grow and resolve some of the land shortage issues associated with terrestrial plants. He also stressed that it was important for the UK to stay in the biofuel race, or risk being left behind.

But terrestrial plants were the focus of the first day. A presentation from a scientist with a wonderful name – José Augusto da Silva Cabral, natural products coordinator of the Amazon Biotechnology Center in Brazil – showed that the country has interest in more than just bioethanol. The centre opened in 2002 and aims to garner some intellectual property from products discovered in the country’s vast, diverse rainforest. Already the institute has some equally diverse projects. It is co-developing commercial-scale production of a blue dye from the Genipa Americana plant (blue dyes from natural products are rare and commercially interesting), and has also started pre-clinical tests of an enzyme that could block the formation of protein plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Da Silva Cabral’s belief is that weeds shouldn’t be thought of as weeds – ‘we just don’t know what they are useful for yet’. (I’m maintaining the same belief about my seriously overgrown garden.)

Today, dipping into marine life, José Jimeno from the biopharmaceutical firm Pharmamar shared some impressive clinical results from a drug called Yondelis (trabectadin), extracted from a humble tunicate – a common marine invertebrate.

Tunicate

Tunicate

Approved last year, the drug is the first in 30 years to be licensed for the treatment of sarcoma. It binds to DNA, interfering with cell division, genetic transcription and DNA repair. Further clinical studies have shown it to be effective against other advanced, drug resistant cancers, including prostate and lung cancer.

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The potential risk to pilots and passengers from toxic fumes leaking into cabins is in the news again, after the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive lobby group’s call for a public enquiry garnered the support of the UK’s opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Chemistry World examined the issue in September 2007, when an independent panel of scientists apointed by the UK government found no evidence that organophosphate nerve toxins from engine oil fumes are causing ill-health among pilots – but said that cabins should be tested for the presence of other potentially harmful substances. That story also attracted a comment from a pilot suggesting that the airline industry was attempting to cover up the issue.

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Sub-lethal electrocution of plants can trigger them to increase their production of certain secondary metabolites – which might be an effective way to generate commercial quantities of bioactive molecules, say scientists in the US.

Hans VanEtten and colleagues at the University of Arizona showed that pea plants would produce 13 times more of an antifungal called (+)-pistatin when ‘treated’ with 30-100 mA of current – and that other plant species behaved similarly. The team say that plants are known to up their production of these metabolites when under environmental stress, such as  microbial infection – and suggest that electro-elicitation could be triggering a similar mechanism, and may simply involve a response to cell damage.

Sadly, there’s no photo of the experimental set-up…

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You’ve heard of grey goo but how about yellow goo? Ivy, it appears, secretes a yellowish paste from its rootlets that contains nanoparticles and helps the evergreen cling to walls. Charles Darwin first noted in 1876 that the ‘rootlets of the Ivy, placed against glass … secrete a little yellowish matter’. But what that substance is has remained a mystery until now.

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Thecommercialchemist

In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover healthier cooking oils, splits and rumours of takeovers in the pharmaceutical industry, and a defence of anonymous peer review. Happy Easter!

Chemical Industry

Ineos on fire:
Around 600 firefighters attended a fire at an Ineos plant in Cologne, Germany, when emissions from an ethylene pipeline caught fire on 17 March. A neighbouring acrylonitrile tank also caught alight. No-one at the site was injured, but local residents were advised to stay indoors, and two people reported to hospital with skin irritation.

BASF-Sinopec expansion:
Chinese petrochemicals giant Sinopec, and German chemicals company BASF, have submitted plans to the Chinese government for a $900 million (£454 million) expansion at their jointly operated Verbund site in Nanjing. The project includes increasing steam cracker capacity to boost ethylene production, and expanding several other plants including ethylene oxide.

Pharmaceuticals

Takeda and Abbott agree split:
Japan’s biggest drug maker Takeda has said it will pay US giant Abbott up to $1.5 billion as the two companies prepare to disband their US joint venture, Tap, which was created in 1977. While Abbott will keep prostate cancer drug Lupron, Takeda will obtain the blockbuster heartburn and ulcer drug Prevacid ($2.3 billion revenue last year), and two experimental drugs currently awaiting US regulatory approval. The deal, due to be completed in two months, will see Takeda become a top 15 pharmaceutical company (by sales) in the US.

prevacid.jpg

FDA heads overseas:
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received approval from the State Department to establish eight full time staff in China – pending agreement from Chinese authorities. Establishing a permanent Chinese office is a bid by the US regulator to better ensure that exports of food and medicines to the US are safe, following a spate of recent scares, including adverse reactions to heparin.

Shire speculation:
Despite general turmoil on the financial markets, shares in the UK’s Shire Pharmaceutical made significant gains this week, following speculation that the company would be the subject of a take-over offer. Initial Financial Times reports linked Pfizer with the company, and then UBS analysts calculated that Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca could pay up to 1425 pence per share – around a 40 per cent premium on the current share price – and still create value.

FDA proposal criticised:
An editorial in The Lancet Infectious Diseases has criticised a new FDA proposal, saying it could halt research into new antibiotics to treat rare but serious infections. The FDA currently demands that pharma firms show new respiratory tract antibiotics are no less effective than existing drugs – but proposes that new drugs must be shown to be clinically superior. Such a shift would make the development of such new drugs – which already have a small market – a financially riskier proposition.

Meanwhile, the FDA has requested more information before approving new antibiotic ceftobiprole, co-developed by Switzerland’s Basilea Pharmaceutica and US-based Johnson & Johnson. The drug is designed to treat skin infections, and in clinical trials appeared effective at treating resistant strains of MRSA.

Drug firm CEO indicted:
Scott Harkonen, the former CEO of California, US-based InterMune, has been indicted for marketing a drug to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a fatal lung disease, without FDA approval. Prosecutors allege Harkonen sent out a press release in 2002 saying the drug was effective against IPF, when in fact the trial showed the drug was ineffective – and have charged him with fraud. The company have already paid nearly $37 million to settle civil and criminal charges related to the case – but FDA investigator Kim Rice says executives ‘should not be allowed to hide behind a corporate shield’.

Pfizer request for peer-review documents quashed:
Pfizer has been denied access to confidential peer-review documents on studies of arthritis drugs Bextra and Celebrex, from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Pfizer wanted the documents because it is being sued by patients who took the arthritis drugs, which have been linked to heart attacks. Similar attempts have been denied before, but it was feared that Pfizer’s ‘fishing expedition’ might set a precedent whereby subpoenas of medical journals became routine. This could damage the process of peer review – which relies on scientists giving their honest opinions on studies, knowing that their views are anonymous.

A decision is still pending on Pfizer’s similar suit to obtain documents from the New England Journal of Medicine.

Agrochemicals

DuPont hits healthy oil:
DuPont has developed a GM soybean plant that gives an oil which is 80 per cent oleic acid. Oil rich in oleic acids is stable when heated to the high temperatures used for frying, avoiding the need to hydrogenate it. The trans fats in hydrogenated oils have been implicated in cardiovascular disease.

dn_photo_higholeicsoybeans.jpg

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