September 2008



There has been a watery theme running through some of the recent stories published in Chemical Technology.

In Like water off a duck’s back, James Hodge describes the new technology used to build an artificial water strider insect that could lead to a new type of aquatic vehicle.

In Surf’s up for Science, Sarah Corcoran describes Hawaiian scientists’ new green way to make chemicals based on sun and surfing. Who says business and pleasure can’t mix?

And finally, there’s some fishy research going on at Matís-Icelandic Food Research in Reykjavik, although there’s no disputing their scientific results. In How fresh is your fish? Sarah Corcoran reports on a new method that can detect spoilage bacteria on fish that make it smell bad.

Dip into these and more stories on the Chemical Technology homepage. And don’t forget to sign up for e-alerts.

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The largest group US Nobel Laureates to ever endorse one candidate for elected office came out in favor of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama on 25 September. In an open letter to the American people, 61 Nobel award winning scientists – including 14 who won the award in Chemistry -claim that Obama is ‘a visionary leader who can ensure the future of our traditional strengths in science and technology and who can harness those strengths to address many of our greatest problems: energy, disease, climate change, security, and economic competitiveness.’

The Nobelists go on to blame the current administration of Republican of George W. Bush for damaging the nation’s scientific enterprise through ‘stagnant or declining’ federal support for research. ‘We have watched Senator Obama’s approach to these issues with admiration,’ the scientists write. ‘In particular, we support the measures he plans to take – through new initiatives in education and training, expanded research funding, an unbiased process for obtaining scientific advice, and an appropriate balance of basic and applied research – to meet the nation’s and the world’s most urgent needs.’

The endorsement came the same day as Obama issued an 11-page “science and innovation plan” that includes a strategy to double federal support basic research at key federal science agencies over a decade.

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The American Chemical Society has agreed to make archived digital copies of 22 journals freely available to UK academics, after the publisher reached a deal with JISC Collections, the body that negotiates with publishers on behalf of UK universities and research funders.
The ACS Legacy Archives include the ACS’s flagship Journal of the American Chemical Society, Chemical Reviews, and the Journal of Organic Chemistry. Three other publishers have also reached agreement with JISC.

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Thecommercialchemist

In this week’s Chemistry World business news round-up, we cover the search for oil-free feedstocks, the latest sniping between Bristol-Myers Squibb and ImClone, and drug company doctor disclosure.

Chemical Industry

Performance polymers:
Pennsylvania, US-based start up company Strategic Polymer Sciences has announced a deal with Belgium’s Solvay to start large scale production of its polyvinylidene fluoride polymer, which can be used to make electrical capacitors which have 10 times the energy storage capacity of conventional capacitors. Such devices are used to temporarily store energy in hybrid electric vehicles, and the global market for capacitors for these vehicles is expected to reach $1.6 billion (£870 million) by 2015, says Solvay.

Change at the top:
DuPont, the third biggest chemical company in the US, has announced that Ellen Kullman (pictured below) will take over as CEO on 1 January 2008, replacing Charles Holliday. Kullman, 51, joined the company in 1988, and will eventually also take over from Holliday as company chairman.

ellenkullman

Raw materials rethink:
BASF catalysis researchers say they have developed an alternative way to produce two-to-four-carbon olefins, an important chemical feedstock, using Fischer-Tropsch chemistry. Olefins are traditionally made from naphtha, from crude oil. The new route produces them from syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and water that can be produced from a wide variety of raw materials including gas, coal and renewable sources. A series of catalysts selectively producing different feedstocks are expected to be developed and implemented within the next decade.
Meanwhile, Genencor has announced a collaboration with US tyre maker Goodyear to develop a microbial fermentation-based approach to make isoprene – a raw material used to make synthetic rubber – from renewable feedstocks. Isoprene is currently made from oil. Genencor plans to invest $50 million in the technology over the next three years, with large scale production expected by 2012.

Device development:
Japan’s Sumitomo says it will establish a device development centre at its Ehime facility to work towards commercial production of display devices using polymer organic LEDs (PLEDs) – technology developed by Cambridge Display Technology, the UK spin out company bought by Sumitomo in July 2007. Unlike the small molecule-based OLEDs currently used in commercial devices, PLEDs can by made by inkjet printing – so promise larger, cheaper LED displays.

Toxic inventory update:
The US Environmental Protection Agency says it will update its toxic substance control act inventory to better reflect the chemicals of concern. The agency has also announced a programme to collect health and safety information on inorganic high production volume chemicals.

Reach reaction:
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has changed its advice to companies pre-registering chemical substances, now requesting they only pre-register substances then later intend to register. The ECHA had previously told companies, ‘if in doubt, pre-register’ – but has changed this advice after two companies, one in the UK and one in Germany, pre-registered the entire EC inventory of about 100,000 substances. The ECHA now says that companies intending to pre-register more than 10,000 substances must contact the agency for prior approval – a position with no legal basis, says Peter Newport, director of the UK Chemical Business Association. Newport adds that some pan-European chemical distributors will have a genuine business need to pre-register 30-40,000 substances.

Pharmaceuticals

BMS ImClone offer ‘absurd’:
Bristol-Myers Squibb and ImClone have been exchanging increasingly caustic letters over a possible takeover. BMS has increased its offer for the portion of ImClone that it doesn’t already own, from $60 to $62 per share, which it plans to take directly to shareholders, after the initial bid was dismissed by the ImClone board. ImClone chairman Carl Icahn has declared the latest offer ‘absurd’, in light of the $70 per share offer Icahn claims the company has received from a large pharmaceutical company, a bid for which the due diligence process will be completed on 28 September.

Tysabri improvement:
New data shows suggests multiple sclerosis drug Tysabri, made by Biogen and Elan, may actually improve patients’ disability, rather than simply slowing their decline. The news could boost sales of the drug, which in 2005 was temporarily withdrawn from the market due to the small risk of developing a potentially deadly brain infection.

$3 billion announced to combat malaria:
A UN anti-poverty summit in New York saw nearly $3 billion pledged to support the first ever Global Malaria Action Plan (GMAP), which aims to eradicate the disease by 2015. The World Bank gave $1.1 billion, while the Geneva-based Global Fund to fight Malaria, Aids and Tuberculosis gave $1.6 billion. These and other donations include support for GlaxoSmithKline’s experimental RTS,S malaria vaccine.

anopheles_albimanus_mosquito

More meta analysis:
The latest meta analysis of the safety data of a blockbuster drug suggests Pfizer and Boehringer Ingelheim‘s lung medication Spiriva raises the risk of heart attack, stroke and heart disease, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the companies counter that the latest clinical trial – full details of which are to be published in October – shows the drug actually cuts risks to the heart.

Doctor disclosure:
Eli Lilly – closely followed by US firm Merck – says it will disclose all the payments it makes to doctors from 2009, setting up an online registry. Pharmaceutical companies have been coming under increasing pressure to reveal payments made to doctors to support their drugs, and a disclosure bill is being considered by US Congress.

Lipitor no good for women?:
Pfizer’s top-selling cholesterol drug, Lipitor, may reduce the risk of heart attack in men – but there’s no statistically significant evidence it can help women, concludes a meta-analysis of studies published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. The authors, Theodore Eisenberg and Martin Wells, also note that Lipitor’s advertising doesn’t report that clinical trials are statistically significant for men, but not for women.

Zentiva approves Sanofi takeover:
The board of Czech generic drugmakers Zentiva have approved a takeover by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-aventis, after Sanofi raised its bid for the company by about 10 per cent, to €1.8 billion (£1.4 billion). Sanofi already holds 25 per cent of Zentiva, and is currently finalising its acquisition of Acambis, the UK-based vaccines developer.

Energy

EDF buys British Energy:
French energy firm EDF has agreed to buy UK nuclear power generator British Energy for £12 billion. The company says it will build four new nuclear reactors, on two current nuclear sites, and will sell land to other companies to build more nuclear plants. But a clause in the contract means EDF doesn’t have to do so until 2011, a move which has frustrated other power companies including E.ON.

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This month, Chemistry World wades into the debate on the Large Hadron Collider: an inspring big science project that could uncover some of the universe’s fundamental secrets or as the UK’s former Chief Scientifc Adviser David King implies, an enormouse waste of resources?
My view (the editorial for the October issue of Chemistry World) is below. Anyone been watching the LHC coverage in a state of bemusement/wonder/contempt?

Physics Envy
That the world did not come to an end when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was fired up on 10 September will not have come as a shock to readers of Chemistry World. Blanket media coverage of the news was, however, pleasantly surprising.
Though the collider is now down for repairs for several months, and key experiments are not set to run for at least a year, the scale and ambition of the project clearly captured the public’s imagination.
But the particle accelerator’s price tag – around £3 billion for the collider and detectors plus running costs – has come under close scrutiny, most notably from the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, surface chemist David King.
Speaking a couple of days ahead of the LHC’s landmark moment, King questioned whether the hunt for the Higgs boson should be a priority for a planet facing potentially catastrophic climate change. He also suggested that in future, the most brilliant minds and the lion’s share of funding should be directed towards ‘bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial’.
The idea that less money should be spent on particle physics may resonate with chemists – particularly in the UK, where many are currently struggling to get science funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the main public funder of UK chemistry research.
And few doubt the importance of producing energy more cleanly and finding better ways of capturing and storing the carbon produced by burning fossil fuels.
It’s not clear, though, that cutting cash for particle physics will help to solve any of these problems.
Firstly, there’s no guarantee that funding some areas more generously with a view to getting fast, applicable results will attract the sort of people that King wants fighting climate change. Brilliant minds have a proclivity for pursuing problems that they find interesting. Dangling the carrot of funding may not work.
Secondly, hitting fields such as particle physics and astronomy could backfire. While the numbers pursuing chemistry at school and university have seen a welcome rise, there are signs that the growth hasn’t kept pace with other subjects (see p10). The type of big science carried out at colliders and telescopes help to recruit not just the physicists of the future but chemists and biologists too. With the LHC poised (possibly) to unveil some of the secrets of creation, cutting funds would be a public smackdown of inspiring fundamental research.
Thirdly, thanks to King and others, decision-makers are now taking climate change seriously. Carbon capture and storage is getting off the ground in Europe, albeit still far too slowly (see p6). In the US, the world’s science and technology powerhouse, both presidential candidates are backing clean energy (see p50). Whether their promises are backed up by hard cash remains to be seen but in comparison to the money that will be needed to tackle climate change, the LHC’s budget is small beans.
Finally, attempting to second guess where the next important innovation will come from and throwing money at it might be attractive to civil servants, but rarely pays dividends. Worse, in the UK the approach seems to be leading to a reluctance to fund the sort of world-class basic chemistry research that might make a difference to the problems of climate change in the future.
King is right to question funding priorities. But diverting money from particle physics would send the wrong message.

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Coming up in the October issue of Chemistry World is an analysis of the two US presidential candidates science priorities. The article plots the fortunes of the two candidates in terms of the contributions received from the chemical industry and big pharma plus an interview with Nobel prize winner Harold Varmus, chhair of Barack Obama’s science advisory committee. Unfortunately, you won’t find one of McCain’s advisers quoted – the McCain camp were unable to put up anyone for interview – or even name who they were. And it’s not just Chemistry World struggling to get McCain’s views – Nature has an election special out today – again, questions sent to the McCain campaign went unanswered. All most people have to go on if they want to know more about the Republican candidate’s views on S&T issues is George W Bush’s science policies and a rather thin strategy document McCain issued in mid-August.
At a time when climate change is fast becoming a top priority for governments worldwide, this seems a little light. Any potential Republican voters concerned? And anyone think that any scientific issues will be a key battleground during the US election?

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This extraordinary picture was first published in National Geographic, and kindly posted from a CD-Rom onto this website. It shows a man sitting on a pool of mercury, which, coincidentally, is the subject of this week’s Chemistry in its element – now live.

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Bristol-Myers Squibb’s rather protracted attempt to buy Imclone goes on. Just as BMS CEO Jim Cornelius raised his hostile offer to $62 per share , Pharmalot has published a very entertaining letter to Cornelius from Imclone CEO Carl Ichan.

The highlight:

…your hostile tender of $62, at this time, seems absurd. If you wish to make your attorneys wealthier, I can show you more productive ways to do so. Or, if you simply want publicity, I can also help you in that regard without your having to make unnecessary expenditures.

Monitoring the sniping is quite fun, so we’re helping out with the publicity too.

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I too covered the melamine in milk scandal, but am slightly confused as to what is actually causing the problem, especially following numerous follow-up comments from readers on Sciencebase.com

(i) Melamine is expensive, so adding it to milk to spoof higher protein levels could be self-defeating in terms of profits.

(ii) Melamine acute toxicity is not high, so could there be another contaminant or degradation product elsewhere in the supply chain?

(iii) Allegedly Fonterra new about the contamination on August 2, less than a week before the Olympics were due to begin…coincidence that it has only emerged into the public domain within the last week?

Thoughts…?

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Well, the 2nd EuCheMS is over and Turin treated us very well; a beautiful perfectly-sized conference centre and a wealth of chemistry to choose from. But needless to say, I’m planning on having pasta-free week now.

The next EuCheMS takes place in Nuremberg, Germany in 2010. We’ll see you there.

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