August 2008



Thecommercialchemist

In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover the Glivec fast-track, a new diagnostic test to help organ transplant patients, and China’s coal-to-liquids cuts.

Chemical Industry

Huntsman shareholders try to push through Hexion deal:
A group of hedge funds holding shares in US chemicals company Huntsman have offered to provide at least $500 million in funds to help finance the company’s takeover by Hexion. But Hexion parent company Apollo swiftly rejected the proposal, saying it ‘does not come close to making the combined company solvent’. In July 2007, Huntsman agreed to be bought by Hexion for $10.6 billion, but Hexion is now looking to back out of the deal, arguing that, because of Huntsman’s poor recent performance, the funding structure of the deal would render the combined company insolvent.

China chemical plant blast:
A series of explosions at a chemical plant in China has killed 20 employees, and left 60 others injured. A fire that broke out in a workshop on 26 August spread through the plant in Yizhou city, Guangxi province, causing the evacuation of 11,500 local residents in case of further explosions and chemical leaks. Chinese authorities say the blast did not cause serious pollution to air or water sources in the area.

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Pharmaceuticals

Job cuts keep coming:
Belgian pharmaceutical firm UCB is cutting 2000 jobs – 17 per cent of its staff – in a bid to cut costs and improve profitability. The company says it plans to transform into a specialist company, focused on Central Nervous System and immunology disease areas.

King rebuffed:
Alpharma has rejected a $1.43 billion takeover offer from fellow US pharmaceutical firm King Pharmaceuticals – although King says it remains confident that a deal can be struck. The deal would expand King’s operations into the pain treatment market.

Novartis part-funds eye drug:
Novartis has agreed a deal to share the costs of its eye drug Lucentis with the UK National Health Service. Following an agreement with National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the NHS will pay for the first 14 doses of the drug – used to treat wet age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness among the elderly – and Novartis will pay for any further treatments that the patient requires. However, currently doctors often use closely related drug Avastin to treat the condition, which is approved to treat cancer and available much more cheaply.

GSK seals epilepsy drug deal:
GSK has announced a deal worth up to $820 million to develop and market an experimental epilepsy drug with US drugmaker Valeant. GSK will pay $125 million up front for retigabine, and up to a further $545 million if the drug reaches key development and sales milestones. Valeant could also receive $150 million based on the development of other compounds. Retigabine has already been tested in two large late-stage trials, and the two companies plan to file for US and European regulatory approval by early 2009.

Deaths halt cancer therapy trial:
Cell Genesys has stopped a Phase III trial of its prostate cancer treatment, GVAX, after 20 more patients taking the drug died than those in a control group. The cause of the deaths has not yet been established.

Organ transplant tool:
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a test to help doctors monitor organ rejection after transplant. The diagnostic test, called AlloMap and made by US firm XDx, measures gene expression in white blood cells, and can reveal patients least likely to reject a transplanted organ after surgery.

Barr wins Alzheimer’s drug ruling:
A US court has cleared generic drugmaker Barr to sell copies of Johnson & Johnson’s Alzheimer’s drug Razadyne. J&J maintains that the patent for the drug remains valid, and says it will appeal the decision. Barr first challenged the patent in 2005.

FDA fast-tracks Glivec:
The FDA is to fast-track its review of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis’s cancer drug Glivec, completing the review in six months rather than 10. The drug is already approved to treat leukemia and gastrointestinal cancers, and has now been shown to reduce the risk of certain stomach and intestinal cancers returning after surgical removal.

Energy

China cans coal-to-liquids projects:
The Chinese authorities have ordered all but two coal-to-liquids fuel projects to be suspended, in a bid to ease pressure on coal supplies, which is driving up prices. South Africa’s Sasol says its joint venture feasibility study in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region is one of the two projects to survive the cuts. But a second Sasol project in Shaanxi will not proceed at this stage, the company says.

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Agrochemicals

Bayer first approval:
Bayer says it has received the Romanian regulatory approval for thiencarbazone-methyl, its new active ingredient to control a range of weeds in corn fields. Bayer says it hopes this first approval will be followed by other European and US regulators, and is planning a 2009 launch for the product. Thiencarbazone-methyl is a new sulfonyl-amino-carbonyl-triazolinone, which will be mixed with isoxaflutole, an existing active ingredient.

DuPont expands seed research:
DuPont has opened two new research centres in Europe to develop crop traits for corn, sunflower and oilseed rape grown in Europe. The US firm is investing $5 million to establish the two new centres, which are based in Hungary and Italy.

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No-one is going to fall off the back of their chair when I say that lighting a match in an atmosphere with no oxygen is impossible. However, knowing the exact levels of oxygen required to sustain fire is, it appears until now, something that has not been thoroughly scrutinised.

It may seem of little consequence on face value, but in Science this weekIrish researchers claim that the oxygen lower limit for combustion should be redefined from the existing level of 12% to 15% (the present day atmospheric oxygen level standing at 20.9%). If correct, the current hypotheses for two of the ‘big five’ mass extinction events in primordial Earth may have to be rewritten.

The experimental set-up was relatively self-explanatory – an 8m3 room equipped with hot plate, thermal imaging system and full atmospheric, humidity and temperature control. Experimental burns of pine wood, moss, matches, paper and a candle conducted at 20oC revealed that none could maintain a flame in an atmosphere with less than 15% oxygen content.

With this result in hand and prior knowledge of the prevalence of wildfires throughout the Mesozoic period – 250 to 65 million years ago – the researchers were able to conclude that atmospheric oxygen levels throughout this period must have been 15% or greater. This contradicts previous reports that attribute two mass extinction events in this period to short-term deficiencies in atmospheric oxygen levels.

The researchers don’t hazard a guess at an alternative hypothesis for the mass extinction events, but if anyone has any good suggestions (that lack any alien involvement) let us know.

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A humble spice could make mouldy toast a thing of the past. Spanish researchers have reported that the incorporation of cinnamon essential oil into wax paraffin packaging can prolong the freshness of bread by up to 10 days.

Clearly fed up with stale bread for breakfast, the researchers had previously looked at the antimicrobial activity of three essential oils: oregano, thyme and cinnamon, against food-borne microorganisms. All three were shown to be effective against various strains of bacteria, but cinnamon came out on top when it came to mould.

It is the first time that active packaging has been proposed for this kind of food. Looking specifically at the growth of Rhizopusstolonifer stolonifer mould in white bread, the researchers found that only 6% (w/w) of the essential cinnamon oil was required to completely inhibit the growth of the mould.

The mould inhibition was found to be directly related to the amount of cinnamaldehyde, responsible for the distinctive smell of cinnamon. Infused into the bread over three days, the inference is that the bread takes on the taste of cinnamon.  

For those of you who don’t a fancy cinnamon infused BLT for lunch, it looks like you will have to put up with stale, old, mouldy bread for the time being.

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A spat has broken out over the validity of research published in Science last year by palaeontologists at North Carolina State University, lead by Mary Schweitzer.

The research closely matched protein sequences from a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex bone to those found in modern day chickens, and appeared to better define the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. Mass spectrometry data of seven linked proteins were highlighted however supplementary information of any further data collected has never been released. The researchers claim that this is for reasons of data protection.

In a damning comment published this week in Science, Pavel Pevzner, a computer scientist at the University of California, begins by saying, ‘Imagine a monkey typing random keys on a typewriter and let us assume that the monkey is given 100,000 attempts to generate six-letter words … Nobody would be surprised if some of the 100,000 words turned out to be correctly spelled words.’

Pevzner goes on to say that the without being able to analyse the complete (and extremely large) data set, it is impossible to verify the results, ‘as false protein identifications are unavoidable in the field of proteomics.’

In the same issue of Science, a rebuttal by John Asara, part of the Scweitzer team responsible for the mass spectrometry data, defends the research, claiming that both rigorous computational methods as well as additional analytical and biochemical techniques were used to validate the data.

He concludes, ‘Overall, the comment by Pevzner et al. does not change any of our original conclusions that collagen fragments from a T. rex fossil bone were extracted and sequenced and that they match better as a group to chicken collagen than to any other protein from any other organism.’

We will wait and see if dinosaurs really were chickens after all.

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Thecommercialchemist

In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover the legal clash over nylon, another 1000 jobs lost in pharma, and the impotence drug offering prostate relief.

Chemical Industry

BASF to sell styrenics:
Germany’s BASF has continued the process of reorganising and divesting its global styrenics business, setting up new subsidiaries to operate independently. The new companies are expected to be established in January 2009, and BASF’s styrenic copolymer production plants will now also be included in the divestment. The business earned BASF €4 billion in 2007.

Invista sues Rhodia and DuPont:
US fibres and polymers company Invista has sued rivals Rhodia and DuPont, accusing them of conspiracy and theft of trade secrets. Invista says the two firms are unlawfully using its trade secrets to expand their nylon chemicals business, and that the suit was necessary to stop them using Invista’s proprietory technology to build an adiponitrile plant. Rhodia says there is no merit in the allegations, adding that it follows several other unsuccessful litigation efforts Invista has pursued against the company, and that it will continue to develop its polyamide business.

Bayer building:
Bayer has announced it will this year start construction on a 250,000 tonne per year world scale facility to make toluene diisocyanate, a component of polyurethane, in Shanghai. The factory will boost Bayer’s total capacity to over 700,000 tonnes per year, and will be the first to use the company’s gas phase phosgene technology, which will reduce solvent consumption by 80 per cent and cut energy consumption by 60 per cent.

Evonik reshuffle:
Werner Muller, chairman of Germany’s Evonik, has announced he is to step down as of 31 December 2008. Muller, who oversaw the birth of Evonik from RAG group (which included Degussa), will be replaced by Klaus Engel on 1 January 2009.

Pharmaceuticals

Abbott to cut 1000 jobs:
US pharmaceutical firm Abbott is to cut 1000 jobs from its 68,000 worldwide workforce over the next four years, in a bid to cut costs in manufacturing and its diagnostics business. The cuts will trim about 10 per cent of the company’s diagnostics jobs. About 100 jobs will be lost with the closure of a clinical chemistry plant in South Pasadena, California, with the rest of the job losses yet to be specified. Making the cuts will cost the company $370 million, but is expected to bring annual pre-tax savings of $150 million.

Impotence drug offers prostate relief:
A study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Eli Lilly has shown that a low dose of Lilly’s impotence drug Cialis can ease the symptoms caused by enlarged prostates, which includes trouble urinating. Cialis caused fewer side effects than current drugs on the market, the scientists report. Prostate enlargement affects about 50 per cent of men over 50, suggesting a large potential market for such drugs.

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First Huntington’s drug approved:
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first drug to treat the symptoms of the neurodegenerative disorder Huntington’s disease. Xenazine, made by Prestwick Pharmaceuticals, treats chorea – jerky, involuntary movements – by lowering levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

BMS antibody deal:
Bristol-Myers Squibb has agreed a multimillion dollar deal to develop and commercialise an antibody-based cancer drug developed by PDL BioPharma. Elotuzumab, currently in Phase I trials for multiple myeloma, tags cancer cells for destruction by the body’s immune system. BMS will pay PDL $30 million upfront, but may pay a further $680 million if the drug reaches key developmental, regulatory and sales milestones. BMS also has an option to collaborate with PDL on a second antibody, PDL241.

Merck in more hot water over Vioxx:
A 1999 Merck clinical study of painkiller Vioxx – now withdrawn – was run primarily to support a pre-launch marketing campaign, researchers report. The findings are based on internal Merck records that were released during court proceedings over the drug. Such a practice would raise ethical questions, as patients enrolled in the study are potentially risking their health in the belief that they are assisting a scientific study, when the true aim is to assist marketing.

Agrochemicals

Lilly buys dairy drug:
Eli Lilly has agreed to buy Monsanto‘s Posilac business – a hormone given to dairy cows to boost milk production – in a deal worth $300 million plus ‘contingent consideration’. Lilly will integrate the business into its Elanco animal health arm. Monsanto announced two weeks ago that it was planning to sell the business, in order to concentrate on its core crop products.

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I think it’s fair to say that religion and science haven’t always existed in perfect harmony. It is perhaps ironic then that to clear the air, a church may be exactly the place to go.

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia have discovered that gold painted, stained glass windows play a key role in purifying the air.

Nanoparticles of gold in the paint, when activated by sunlight, are able to destroy volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the air, says principal investigator Zhu Huai Yong. For centuries people have admired the windows as colourful works of art, however in modern times, they can be considered to be gold nanostructures capable of purifying the air photocatalytically.

The by-product of the catalytic reaction is carbon dioxide, comparatively safe in the small quantities produced.

The research opens the door to the possibility that gold nanoparticles could be used to drive chemical reactions. ‘This technology is solar-powered and very energy efficient because only the particles of gold heat up.’ says Yong. ‘In conventional chemical reactions, you heat up everything which is a waste of energy.’

Perhaps medieval glaziers, the nanotechnologists of their time, knew more about chemical science than we previously thought!

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BPA doubtsThe debate over whether we should be allowed to buy children toys and bottles containing the plasticiser bisphenol A (BPA) seems like it may never end – but consumer worries mean that already BPA is being removed from stores.

In the latest developments, a proposed bill to ban BPA in children’s products in California has been narrowly defeated, just days after the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) released a draft statement [pdf] finding that “an adequate margin of safety exists for BPA at current levels of exposure from food contact uses”. This is a controversial statement, given that Health Canada have already banned the compound, and that the US National Toxicology Programme found ‘some concern’ that BPA may pose risks to children’s brain development at typical human exposure levels. More FDA debate on this draft is expected in a 16 September public meeting.

The FDA has been accused of concentrating on industry-funded studies, and ignoring recent animal research linking BPA to cancer and developmental effects even at exposures similar to those humans would receive.  In Europe, the EFSA (European Food and Safety Administration) has affirmed BPA’s safety after a literature review, because, a panel of scientists said, humans more rapidly metabolise and eliminate BPA than do the rats used in scientific research.

While this scientific and political debate plays out, consumers are already forcing BPA off the shelves. Fortunately, BPA-free baby bottles and other products do exist – they’re more expensive, of course, but most parents would feel that it’s a price of precaution worth paying. And it’s hard not to agree with them.

This reminds me of a comment made last year by Richard Ratcliffe (executive secretary for the UK’s Food Additives and Ingredients Association), after new research had linked artificial food colourings to hyperactivity; though supermarkets said they’d already pulled the compounds from their foods thanks to consumer pressure.

‘The tide has already gone out, and studies like these are left on the beach,’ he said. 

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I do enjoy hunting through the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. In between the phenolic content of raw vegetables and various methods of grain storage, there’s occasionally a booze-related gem.

This week, wine and beer-lovers alike have their chemistry questions answered. According to researchers in Japan, there is, as suspected a direct relationship between barley dimeric α-amylase inhibitor-1 and the stability of the head on your pint. (I knew it.) And yeast thioredoxin could be a nasty beer foam-destroying protein.

Also this week, researchers in Germany have reconstructed the ‘sensometabolome’ of a red wine. In other words, the group has, for the first time, attributed the various flavours experienced when drinking a red wine to the relative amounts of the compounds that cause them.

If only the question, ‘what three compounds are responsible for the bitter flavour of red wine?’ would come up in my pub quiz.

The sensometabolome of red wine has finally been worked out

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I’m flying back to the UK tomorrow so this is likely to be my last post from Philly. It’s been a packed day! Apart from a pretty fascinating talk by Michelle Gallagher, outlining how the levels of two volatile compounds emitted by skin can indicate whether tissue is cancerous or healthy, I spent much of the day in a session on the blood brain barrier. This is a pretty hot area at the moment, with medicinal chemists all trying to find ways of getting their drugs for alzheimer’s or brain cancer into the brain and keeping them there. The problem isn’t just getting past the barrier – essentially composed of the dense phospholipid bilayer – but making sure that they’re water soluble enough to get to their targets inside cells and that they don’t escape back out into the plasma through transporter proteins – like the dreaded P-glycoprotein.

However, the most unusual and interesting talk of the day for me was one by Pamela Dalton on how people’s expectations and beliefs affect the impact of chemicals on their health. So for instance, sometimes when people were told that a particular smell was an industrial effluent or a chemical synthesised in a lab (rather than some ‘natural’ extract) they tended to report feelings of nausea, dizziness. And that was the case sometimes when the ‘chemical’ involved was actually just a tube of air!

Anyway that’s it from me for the moment here. But keep a look out on the Chemistry World homepage for a couple more stories from the ACS tomorrow – including the work on volatiles and cancer I mentioned above.

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A study of US adults has found that higher levels of arsenic in urine are associated with increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes.

Out of the sample of 788 people, fewer than 8 per cent had type 2 diabetes, but the study found that those with the disease had, on average, a 26 per cent higher level of total arsenic in their urine than those without the disease.

Participants in the top one-fifth of total urine arsenic levels (16.5 micrograms per litre) had 3.6 times the odds of having type 2 diabetes as those in the lowest one-fifth (3.0 micrograms per litre).

The US Environmental Protection Agency standard for safe drinking water is 10 micrograms per litre or less, and the researchers cited an estimate that 13 million Americans access a public water supply containing arsenic levels higher than this.

While this has sounded the alarm bells and is receiving a lot of media attention – particularly since it relates to a disease that around 9 per cent of the US population has – other risk factors have a far bigger impact. According to the UK’s NHS website, 80 per cent of people who develop type 2 diabetes are overweight, or obese, tend not to get much exercise.

The researchers also point out that more studies are needed to find out ‘whether the association is causal’.

Have a look at the USGS website for goundwater arsenic concentrations across the US.

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