May 2008



In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover biodiesel and batteries, the biotech buy-up, and the push to prescribe statins.

Chemical Industry

On the up:
Dow has announced it will raise the price of all its products by up to 20 per cent on 1 June, as rising energy, feedstock and transportation costs squeeze the company’s profit margins. The company’s first quarter energy and feedstock costs were 42 per cent higher than for the same period in 2007 – and the total cost could reach $32 billion this year, the company predicts. Dow chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris said the escalating costs are ‘putting a strain on the entire value chain and is forcing difficult discussions with customers.’
While most chemical companies have been gradually increasing the prices of certain products, Dow is the first to announce a global price increase across its whole product portfolio. But other firms are already following in Dow’s footsteps – just a day after Dow’s announcement, Huntsman reported it would increase the price of all its products by up to 25 per cent, due to surging costs.

Biodiesel catalyst centre:
German chemicals giant BASF is to build a sodium methoxide plant in Brazil – the first such facility in South America. The chemical is used as a catalyst to convert plant oils into biodiesel. The 60,000 tonne plant is due to start operating in 2010.

Evonik battery bid:
Germany’s Evonik is investing in lithium ion battery technology, and says it plans to become Europe’s leading component supplier for the batteries. The company is expanding its relevant production facilities, and has increased its stake in German lithium ion battery maker Li-Tec – which uses Evonik technology in its products – to 40 per cent.

Sumitomo expansion:
Japanese chemicals company Sumitomo is to build a new facility to produce resorcinol, increasing its capacity from 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes to become the world’s biggest producer of the feedstock. Sumitomo says demand is growing for resorcinol, which is used in a variety of products from adhesives to pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceuticals

microRNA medicines in man:
Santaris have started Phase I human trials of a microRNA-targeting drug – the first time such a treatment has been tested in man, says the Denmark-based firm. MicroRNAs regulate gene function by intercepting messenger RNA, but microRNA over-activity is associated with diseases. Santaris’s experimental drug SPC3649 binds to microRNA-122, which was recently found to facilitate human Hepatitis C virus replication in liver cells. The company recently validated the approach in tests on monkeys.

Prescribe more statins:
Patients given statins before heart surgery are far less likely to die or suffer a stroke after the operation, German researchers conducting a meta-analysis have found. The cholesterol-targeting drugs were taken by just over half of the 31,000 patients analysed – but the results show that more people should be given the drug, the report’s authors say.
Meanwhile, the UK National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued new guidelines saying that GPs should use established risk factors to identify more people at high risk of heart attack or stroke – and that 1.4 million more people should be offered statins to manage this risk.

Takeda tie-up:
Japanese pharmaceuticals giant Takeda have announced another deal with a US biotech company. Following its acquisitions of Millenium in April and Amgen’s Japanese arm in February, the company has now agreed an alliance with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals to develop RNAi-based drugs. Alynlam will receive $150 million up front, and could earn up to $1 billion if experimental drugs reach key developmental milestones.
Meanwhile, US-based Bristol-Myers Squibb has become the latest pharmaceutical giant to snap up a biotech firm with a promising pipeline, agreeing to acquire Kosan Biosciences for $190 million. The biotech company is focussed on cancer treatments, and has two key oncology treatments in clinical trials.

Headache for Bayer:
Germany’s cartel office has fined Bayer €10.3 million for illegally price fixing over-the-counter medicines including aspirin. Bayer was accused of offering rebates to over half of Germany’s 21,000 pharmacies for selling the products at a certain price. Bayer says it doesn’t agree with the legal position, but will pay the fine to avoid a legal battle.

Agrochemicals
Sulfur surge:
A tenfold increase in the price of sulfur in the last year is providing a windfall for energy companies, who produce the material as a waste when refining oil. Rising demand for fertiliser is fuelling the surging demand.

Oiling up:
Dow has announced a research collaboration with Martek Biosciences to develop and commercialise a canola seed that produces the omega 3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid. The companies aim to develop a ‘healthy oil’ to sell to the food industry.

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Chemists in Taiwan have developed a nanomachine fitted with light-triggered molecular brakes – as shown on this video. Read the whole story at chemistryworld.org

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Scientists at Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands say that they’re the first to succesfully sequence the complete genome of a woman. The Human Genome Project used a mixture of DNA from four anonymous donors – two male and two female.
The LUMC team sequenced the genome o ftheir colleague, Marjolein Kriek, a clinical geneticist.
Gert-Jan B van Ommen, who led the LUMC team, said, ‘If anyone could properly consider the ramifications of knowing his or her sequence, it is a clinical geneticist.’
Am I the only one that finds that a slightly worrying assumption? If by ‘ramifications’ we’re talking about ethical consequences, then that is mostly a function of your beliefs – and not really the science.
I suspect though the good professor might not be completely in earnest. He added: ‘And after Watson we also felt that it was okay to do Kriek.’

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Quantum dot pioneer Louis E Brus, of Columbia University, US, and carbon nanotube-discoverer Sumio Iijima, of Meijo University in Japan, are the first recipients of the Kavli prize for nanoscience, worth $1 million. The prizes are awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and are funded by the physicist and entrepreneur Fred Kavli. Starting in 2008, they’ll be awarded every two years in nanoscience, neuroscience, and astrophysics.

brusijima

The money for a Nobel Prize is currently hovering slightly above $1.5 million, for comparison – it’ll be interesting to see whether Kavli’s awards can match the Nobels for prestige.

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In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover vaccines for bird flu, clinical trials of the ‘polypill’, and relief for Germany’s bee population.

Chemical Industry

Evonik expansion:
Germany’s Evonik has announced it will expand its production capacity for laurolactam – a starting material for polyamide 12 – at its Marl site. The multimillion Euro project is due to complete in 2009, and is intended to meet growing demand for polyamide 12, which Evonik says can be used to make plastic pipes strong enough to replace steel for gas distribution.

Pharmaceuticals

Merck cancels cholesterol trial:
US drugmaker Merck has halted a Phase III trial of its experimental cholesterol drug MK-542A (formerly known as Cordaptive). The trial was designed to assess, by ultrasound imaging, whether the drug was effective at slowing the thickening of the carotid artery in patients with HeFH, a genetic disorder leading to extremely high levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Merck now says that the ultrasound technique was inappropriate for the patient group being tested.

Assessing this patient group in this way was questioned as a good marker of a drug’s effectiveness, after a similar study used by Merck and Schering-Plough to test Vytorin showed the drug was no better at reducing artery thickening than an older generic drug, despite producing a greater drop in LDL cholesterol.
The decision is further bad news for MK-542A, which was unexpectedly rejected by the FDA in April for unspecified reasons. Its proposed trade name Cordaptive was also rejected.

Bird flu vaccine approval:
GSK has received European Commission approval for its H5N1 vaccine Prepandrix. The vaccine, intended to be stockpiled by governments and deployed pre-pandemic, is the first such treatment to receive approval – other drug makers, including Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis, are developing similar vaccines. Analysts predict GSK could earn over $1 billion in sales from the product.

Polypill trials start:
The Spanish National Centre of Cardiovascular Research has started clinical trials of a ‘polypill’ – a combination of aspirin, a statin and an ACE inhibitor – which supporters say could save millions of lives by cutting heart attacks. The drug’s ingredients are all generically available, and the pill – which the Spanish team hope to launch worldwide in 2010 – would cost under $10 a month. Other groups are looking to develop a similar drug, including Indian drugmaker Dr Reddy’s.

a pill

FDA drug monitoring strengthened:
The US Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to improve the speed with which it detects safety issues with approved drugs. The regulator will use information on Medicare claims to monitor risks associated with new drugs, rather than relying on voluntary reporting of safety concerns, which can take years for safety concerns to surface.

Merck settles with states:
US pharmaceuticals firm Merck says it will pay $58 million to settle investigations by 29 US states (plus the District of Columbia) into the company’s marketing of withdrawn painkiller Vioxx. Merck has already agreed to pay $4.85 billion to settle claims by thousands of the drug’s users that it caused heart attacks and strokes.

Antisoma acquisition:
UK cancer drug developer Antisoma is to buy US-based Xanthus Pharmaceuticals for £27 million. The deal will broaden Antisoma’s oncology pipeline – Xanthus has two potential leukaemia drugs, one in clinical trials and one awaiting FDA approval, plus a family of drugs in preclinical trials with potential for treating multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Superior results:
US biotech Amgen says a head-to-head Phase III clinical trial that pitted its osteoporosis drug denosumab against Merck’s Fosamax shows denosumab gave significantly greater bone mineral density gains. The company says it plans to file for FDA approval by the end of the year. Denosumab is an antibody-based treatment, is given as a twice-yearly injection.

Agrochemicals

a bee

Pesticide suspended over bee deaths:
German authorities have suspended the use of clothianidin, after concluding that the pesticide was responsible for the sudden spate of bee deaths in the southern state of Baden Württemberg. The pesticide, a Bayer product, had been coated onto the surface of maize seed – but faulty application of the coating meant large amounts of insecticide dust was produced when the seeds were planted, which blew into fields visited by bees.

Rotam into Europe:
Canadian-owned multinational Rotam Agrochemical launched its European operations on 19 May in London. The company produces insecticides, fungicides and herbicides.

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Material scientists have examined the shimmering green shell of a beetle and found that it has a structure that makes it an ideal photonic crystal.
The ideal photonic crystal – dubbed the ‘champion’ crystal’ – was described by scientists in 1990. They showed that the optimal photonic crystal – one that could manipulate light most efficiently – would have the same crystal structure as the lattice of carbon atoms in diamond. But diamonds themselves aren’t any good as photonic crystals because their atoms are packed too closely together to manipulate visible light.

beetle

Michael Bartl, an assistant professor of chemistry and adjunct assistant professor of physics at the University of Utah, US, together with doctoral student Jeremy Galusha and colleagues, have now examined the chitinous exoskeleton of the Brazilian Lamprocyphus augustus beetle – and found that it is made up of 200 tiny crystals, each ith the ideal diamond-like structure sought by scientists.
‘It appears that a simple creature like a beetle provides us with one of the technologically most sought-after structures for the next generation of computing,’ says Bartl. ‘Nature has simple ways of making structures and materials that are still unobtainable with our million-dollar instruments and engineering strategies.’
Using a scanning electron microscope, the researchers looked at a section through one of the beatle’s scales. Then with a focused ion beam, they shaved off the exposed end of the scale, and took another image – eventually building up a picture of the scale.
‘Each piece is too small to be seen individually by your eye, so what you see is a composite effect,’ with the beetle appearing green from any angle, Bartl explains.
The scales themselves can’t be used in electronic devices because the chitin from which they’re formed is too brittle, is not semiconducting and doesn’t bend light adequately. Bartl and Galusha now are trying to design a synthetic version of the beetle’s photonic crystals, using scale material as a mold to make the crystals from a transparent semiconductor.

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It was Jean-Pierre Garnier’s last day at work yesterday. As chief exec of GSK he’s overseen growth in its pipeline – but he’s also been lambasted by shareholders who have seen a 30 per cent fall in the company’s share price during his 8-year tenure. When his successor, Andrew Witty, was appointed back in October 2007, we reported that the general feeling in the industry was that JP had had a very successful run as CEO. But with GSK blockbusters Seroxat and Avandia still under a major cloud, Witty will have his work cut out to pacify rebellious shareholders and capitalise on JP’s investment …

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Are nanoparticles toxic? The debate continues as to the fate of carbon nanomaterials in the body, and whether such structures – nanotubes and fullerenes (buckyballs) – are harmful.

But what is clear is that fullerenes can penetrate and disrupt cell membranes. Reporting in Nature Nanotechnology, Luca Monticelli at the University of Calgary, Canada, and colleagues have developed a computer simulation that examines how a fullerene cluster is able to enter the membrane – and found that the process is energetically favourable, happening within microseconds.

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As the video shows, the process starts when one member of the fullerene cluster inserts into the membrane’s lipid headgroup – the rest of the cluster following closely behind. The team found that the fullerenes do affect the membrane’s properties, distorting it and making it slightly softer. But even at high concentrations, the fullerenes are unlikely to cause mechanical damage – so this is unlikely to be a mechanism for fullerene toxicity, Monticelli concludes.

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In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover a vaccine for hayfever, the quest for cellulosic biofuels, and a potential end to dribbling after visits to the dentist.

Chemical Industry

Scrubbing up:
Belgium-based Solvay has launched a new product to treat sulfur dioxide in flue gases. The company is investing $40 million (£21 million) at a site in Wyoming, US, to make the sodium bicarbonate based product, called SOLVAir Select 300, with initial production capacity of 125,000 tonnes per year.

Nitric acid flow:
BASF has started operating a new nitric acid plant at its Antwerp site, with a 500,000 tonne per year capacity. The acid will mainly be used in polyurethane manufacture. The German firm says the nitric acid plant is the first built entirely with the company’s own technology – a cost-saving measure, BASF says.

Have a drink:
Unilever has opened a global R&D centre of excellence for its drinks business – to develop plant-based products with health angle, ‘from weight management teas to cholesterol-lowering milk drinks’. The centre will employ 90 product developers, and be funded from Unilever’s near €50 million annual drinks R&D budget.

Pharmaceuticals

Hayfever vaccine edges closer:
UK-based allergy treatment company Allergy Therapeutics has announced the successful completion of its Phase III clinical trial for its experimental hayfever vaccine. Patients who suffer from hayfever from grass pollen – the most common cause of the allergy – experienced a 13 per cent improvement in symptoms when given the vaccine rather than a placebo. The company says it will file for European approval for the vaccine in early 2009 – and estimated the worldwide market for allergy treatments is over $10 billion.

Hay field

Further Pfizer closure:
US pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer has announced it will close its Indiana plant, formerly used to manufacture Exubera, the inhaled insulin product the firm scrapped in October 2007 due to poor sales. The closure, to be completed by mid-2009, means the plant’s remaining 140 jobs will be cut – adding to the 660 workers made redundant at the plant in January. Pfizer has already announced the closure of several other manufacturing plants – including the UK plant at Sandwich.

Risk of death:
AstraZeneca‘s beta blocker drug Toprol, frequently given to patients before non-heart-related surgery to reduce the risk of heart attack, more than doubles the risk of stroke and increases the likelihood of death by 33 per cent, researchers report in The Lancet. This increased risk may outweigh the reduced chance of heart attack, the researchers conclude, and further large trials are urgently needed.

Danger downplayed:
GlaxoSmithKline has been downplaying the heart attack risk associated with HIV drug abacavir (Ziagen), reports The Independent. The company was officially told about the risk in 2005 – but stronger data published in The Lancet in April prompted the firm to issue a statement to investors that the findings are ‘unexpected’ and ‘unconfirmed’. Independent scientists say the Lancet study doesn’t prove a causal link between the drug and heart attack – but that GSK’s studies do not disprove the link either. The FDA and EMEA are currently reviewing safety data on the drug.

Dentist leaves you numb?:
A drug that counteracts the effects of local anaesthetics used by dentists could soon be helping people to avoid dribbling or accidentally biting their numbed tongue after dental work. On 9 May the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave approval to Novalar Pharmaceuticals to start marketing a drug which cuts by more than half the time taken to recover full sensation.

Merck outsources to India:
US drugmaker Merck has signed a five year deal with Ranbaxy to develop anti-infective drugs. The Indian firm will discover and develop drugs through to Phase IIa clinical trials, with Merck to carry out later stage clinical trials and bring the drug to market. Ranbaxy will receive an initial payment – and estimates it could eventually receive over $100 million, depending on the drugs developed reaching certain milestones.

Lilly biotech complex complete:
Eli Lilly has completed the final phase of its $1 billion new biotechnology research and development facility. The US pharmaceutical firm says 500 scientists and support staff will develop new biotech-based drugs at the site. Two earlier phases – a pilot plant and a research support facility – were completed in 2006.

Trial confirms Trasylol risk of death:
Final results of a clinical trial stopped prematurely in October 2007 due to high numbers of patient deaths have confirmed that Bayer drug Trasylol (aprotinin) is associated with a 53 per cent higher risk of death than alternative treatments. Aprotinin, or alternative drugs tranexamic acid or aminocaproic acid, had been routinely given to prevent blood loss during heart surgery – but approximately 6 per cent of patients given aprotinin died within 30 days of surgery, compared to 3 per cent given the alternatives. Bayer has responded by pulling the drug from all countries where it remained in the supply chain.

Sanofi loses patent appeal:
Sanofi Aventis has lost its appeal over a US court’s 2007 decision to strike down patents for the French pharmaceutical firm’s anticlotting drug Lovenox. The court had ruled that the patents were unenforceable because the company had failed to disclose certain information to the US patent office. Sanofi earned €2.6 billion (£2.1 billion) from Lovenox in 2007 – but may now face competition from generic copies of the drug.

Energy

Biofuel ventures:
German firms Süd-Chemie and Linde have agreed to collaborate to develop and market second generation biofuel production plants. The companies say their biotech approach will deliver ethanol or related fuels from cellulosic biomass – Süd-Chemie contributing biocatalysis and bioprocessing expertise, Linde providing engineering know-how.

Meanwhile, US firms DuPont and Genencor have announced they will form a 50-50 joint venture to develop a low cost technology to make cellulosic ethanol. The companies will invest an initial $140 million over the first three years, and will initially target corn and sugarcane waste as a feedstock.

biofuel biocatalysis

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Two US congressmen on the House of Representatives’ committee on energy and commerce have written to four firms, including Nestle, requesting that they remove BPA from their infant formula packaging.
In their 6 May letter, John Dingell, the Democrat chairman of the committee, and Bart Stupak, the chairman of the committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, say that they believe that the health risks from BPA in infants and children ‘are serious enough to warrant immediate action’.
‘We ask that you voluntarily remove BPA from your infant formula packaging,’ the two say. ‘We believe that this measure will help protect developing infants and children from the neural, behavioural, and developmetnal risks of BPA. We also believe that such action will provide reassurance to concerned parents who might worry that their children will have latered prostate and mammary glands or reach early puberty simply because of their infant formula.’
The firms have been asked to respond to the committee in writing within two weeks.

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