December 2008



The final Chemistry in its Element podcast of 2008 is up – this week Ron Caspi, from the University of California, San Diego, explains the many roles of manganese, a ‘severely underappreciated’ element, he argues. Astonishingly, 3 trillion tons of manganese ‘nodules’ (rock-like shells – below right) are scattered over parts of the ocean floor, but mining them is not commercially viable.

Our elements series will be taking a break until the new year, but Andrea Sella will be back in January 2009 to talk about bismuth – in the meantime, you can catch all our previous episodes here.

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In this week’s Chemistry World business round-up, we cover more job cuts in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and increased investment in solar cells.

PHARMACEUTICAL

More pharma jobs go as patent cliff approaches
Bristol-Myers Squibb is to cut its workforce by a further 10 per cent before the end of 2010. The firm has already committed itself to cutting 800 jobs by the end of 2008, and the latest cuts will bring the total number of job losses to around 4,300. The company says the cuts will help it cope with the significant drop in sales it is expecting between 2011 and 2013 when three of its best-selling drugs, Plavix, Abilify and Avapro, come off patent.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has said that 700 jobs are to go from its sales and administrative operations in France. The company, which currently employs some 3,000 people in the country, is facing a similar patent cliff as Lipitor, the world’s biggest selling drug with annual sales of around $13 billion, (£8.7 billion)  comes off patent in 2011.

Bayer ups research efforts
Despite the global financial crisis, Bayer has decided to up its R&D spending, especially in healthcare. The company, which spent €2.8 billion (£2.6 billion) on R&D in 2008, currently has 50 drugs in clinical development.

‘Only through innovation can our company generate the growth that is essential to safeguard its sustained success,’ said Werner Wenning, Bayer’s chairman. He continued by urging the German government to follow many European country’s in giving more substantial tax breaks for R&D investment – a move he believes would ultimately lead to greater investment in Germany

Wyeth snaps up Thiakis
Wyeth is hoping to take advantage of the failure of the CB1 receptor class of antiobesity drug class by snapping up UK antiobesity expert Thiakis for £30 million. The company is developing a range of peptide-based antiobesity drugs based on the natural gastrointestinal peptide oxyntomodulin, which has been found to play a key role in regulating appetite.

obesity-200

GSK back on the licensing trail
GSK has signed a drug development and commercialisation deal with Californian biopharmaceutical firm Dynavax worth up to $800 million.

The deal will give GSK access to Dynavax’ drug candidates that target autoimmune and inflammatory diseases such as lupus, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. The drugs work by inhibiting the endosomal Toll-like receptors (TLRs) that play a key role in inflammatory responses and blocking them has been shown to reduce symptoms in multiple autoimmune diseases models, such as lupus, inflammatory skin disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis.

INDUSTRY

More industry cuts as slump in demand continues
Yet more bad news from the chemical industry has emerged this week, as falling demand has continued to cause havoc in the sector.

Dutch life sciences and materials company DSM, is to axe 1000 jobs, some 5 per cent of its total workforce, and idle plants as demand for some of its products has slumped due to the global downturn. While its Life Sciences businesses have been largely unaffected by the recession, its Materials Sciences businesses have not fared so well.

End-user demand in the automotive, construction and electrical sectors has led to a decrease in demand for the group’s products and temporary plant shutdowns have already been implemented.

Meanwhile, Air Products has decided to slash some 1,300 jobs, 7 per cent of its workforce, to cope with reduced demand. The company expects that severance pay will cost the company over $100 million.

‘This is clearly one of the weakest business environments we have seen across our end-markets.  However, our financial position remains strong, and with a significant portion of our business under medium- and long-term supply contracts, we expect to continue generating strong cash flow,’ said John McGlade, CEO of Air Products.

Eastman Chemical is also looking to cut costs to cope with the downturn and is aiming to save $100 million next year, by freezing wages, reducing overtime and cutting its use of contractors.

Following in BASF’s footsteps, German pharmaceutical and chemical company, Merck KGaA, is taking less drastic action by only shutting down various manufacturing operations ‘on a temporary basis as needed for several weeks in the first half of 2009’. The company’s liquid crystals division has been particularly hard hit by the downturn.

Lanxess is following suit and will temporarily close plants and reduce output at more than half of its 45 production facilities in Germany with some 1,400 employees agreeing to use up holiday or reduce positive balances on their time sheets to avoid job losses.

ENERGY

Sunny future for Hemlock
The Hemlock Semiconductor group is investing up to $3 billion to expand its production capabilities of polycrystalline silicon to some 34,000 tonnes a year. The material is used to make semiconductor chips and solar cells. The company currently produces some 19,000 tonnes of silicon a year after having invested nearly $5 billion over the past five years to meet the growing demand from the solar industry.

solar-cells-300

Evonik and Daimler ‘charge up’
German chemical producer Evonik is teaming up with carmaker Daimler to develop and build new lithium-ion batteries for use in cars. The companies have set-up a joint venture, Li-Tec, and are looking for a third investor to aid in integrating the electronic systems.

According to the companies, Li-Tec batteries will soon be appearing in hybrid and electric cars made by Mercedes-Benz.


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Google is telling me that the world is suffering from an acetonitrile shortage. This I discovered mid-week when one of my PhD students emailed and said our stores man couldn’t give him a winchester. I replied and said (some horrid words about him) ‘ridiculous’, he’s probably forgotten to do the order, tell him to ‘sort it out’ or there will be me to deal with. But alas there does seem to be a real problem.

Who can say when it started, there are many stories floating cyberspace as to the cause. My lack of knowledge/interest I put down to just returning from maternity leave, and the abundance of an HPLC solvent being low on my list of concerns. However, it appears that while I have been wondering about returning to work part-time or full-time in the current economic crisis, that the very same global financial situation may be behind the fall in supply of this solvent.

A friend of mine for many years when I worked as a synthetic chemist, and then in separation science, I am already starting to miss it. I like to know that it is there. Rarely getting in to the lab myself these days, I worry for my PhD student who has spent many months developing methods based on acetonitrile, and has many hundreds of samples lined up to be run. Have I failed him as a supervisor in not predicting this acetonitrile crisis? Why did we choose this over methanol for this current study anyway? I can’t recall.

A posting on one forum suggests that the bust of the housing market is to blame. I must therefore accept some responsibility, as we have decided to stay put in our weeny flat! I doubt this to be the cause – but the IOC could perhaps pen a letter to my fretting student by way of an apology, and that pesky hurricane had a bit of a cheek too kicking up a storm in the Gulf Coast.

What to do in the meanwhile then? My man in stores says he knows where he can get a few bottles, but I’ll have to pay £50 or £60 rather than the usual tenner. Would this be some dark alley rendez-vous I wondered, toe-tectors and reinforced winchester carriers at the ready. My student is perhaps going to pop in over the xmas break and scavenge a few mls here and there from the other labs. I warned him to be careful with his fingerprints, since our Forensics department would love an in-house investigation. ‘UPLC’ I keep hearing in my head. Again, no-one but myself to blame for not getting that grant in for some new equipment.

I hear from my colleagues in pharma that they are being allowed to go past the ‘use-by’ dates on their mobile phase buffers. Shock horror. Now that really is headline news. Pointless of me to be wondering late last night then, how many 1 litre bottles would fit snuggly into my laptop bag when I next pay them a visit.

Does anyone else have acetonitrile anxiety?

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According to a report in the Times, AstraZeneca has been accused of exerting undue influence over this year’s Nobel prize for medicine.

nobel-medal-200

The furore erupted after it emerged that two senior figures on the panel that chose to recognise Harold zur Hausen for his work on the cervical cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV) have strong links to the pharma giant.

AstraZeneca has strongly denied any wrong-doing and said its sponsorship of the Nobel prize website had nothing to do with the award going to an area that has spawned two of its best-selling vaccines.

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All chemistry departments in the UK have had the quality of their research evaluated and compared, as part of the UK’s gigantic Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Overall, the RAE ratings will determine the distribution of over £1.5 billion of research funding annually from next year to 2013.

Chemistry’s slice of that pie won’t be established until March 2009. Nor will individual chemistry departments discover until then how significant the differences in their gradings are.

Still, a glance at the table shows that Nottingham University appears to have done particularly well, while Reading and Queen’s University Belfast have slipped down the rankings compared to 2001. Cambridge, top of the pile, had 40% of its submitted research judged as ‘world leading’ (4*). Huddersfield, Reading and Loughborough, at the bottom, had no world leading research at all (or less than 5%). It’s also worth noting that departments could choose how many researchers they submitted to have work assessed. Nottingham, for example, achieved a slightly higher average score than Oxford – but submitted half as many researchers for scrutiny.

There are two particularly interesting statistics to leap out of this year’s RAE. First, only 33 chemistry departments in the UK entered the exercise (though 2 represent joint entries from nearby *effectively merged Scottish departments Eastchem (Edinburgh, St Andrews) and Westchem (Glasgow, Strathclyde)).  Back in 2001, 45 departments took part, which reflects how many smaller departments have closed since then *and/or strategic merging across departments, with some courses rebranded as forensic science or pharmacy.

On a cheerier note, the RAE suggests that UK chemistry is in a marginally healthier position internationally than UK physics. In sum, 63% of the UK’s chemistry research submitted to assessment  was judged 4* or 3*, that is, world leading or internationally excellent. For physics, that’s down to 57%.  What a turnaround from 2001, when physics seemed well ahead of chemistry – to the extent that some thought the chemistry panel was too pessimistic in its judgements of international research quality.

The 2008 review is the last RAE of its type – where for each subject, thousands of research papers are graded by a handful of dedicated peer reviewers. Future reviews will cut down on this mass of work by using metrics – statistical indicators such as number of PhDs or citations – to grade research quality.

* Updated – thanks for your comments

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is some gold, frankincense or myrrh – or is it?

Chemists from Nottingham University would like elements from all over the periodic table from rubidium, helium, caesium and manganese.

As part of the chemistry department’s Periodic Table of Videos project, they have produced a festive take on chemistry in the recently released ‘An element for Christmas’.

Personally, all I want is the element of suprise!

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Philip Ball (Chemistry World, December 2008: Literary reactions) asks who will take up the challenge to put chemical ideas as an essential component of a fictional plot. My guess is, not very many. What Philip fails to note in his otherwise excellent article is the structure of the publishing industry: essentially now an author cannot get published unless they can get an agent to act as an intermediary between them and the publisher. Agents tend to be arts graduates, and concepts like chemistry simply turn them off. Remember, agents are not interested in the long term good of science, or society; they simply wish to earn some cash. Who can blame them?
If anybody wishes to contradict this statement, feel free to name agents who would not be so turned off. I shall take the absence of such a list as verification of my proposition!

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In this week’s Chemistry World business round-up, we cover more job cuts in the chemical industry and the appointment of green-energy advocate and physics Nobel laureate Steven Chu as the US’ new energy minister.

ENERGY

‘Green’ US Energy Secretary
President-elect Obama looks set to name physics Nobel laureate Steven Chu as the country’s next Energy Secretary. Chu, a strong advocate of green energy research, has led the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004 and according to the laboratories website has sought to make the centre “the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research.”

The news will come as welcome relief to environmentalists the world over, but how the oil giants will take the news is yet to be seen.

Solar cells suffer in downturn
The world’s largest solar cell maker, Q-Cells, has cut its financial outlook for the year, saying many customers were postponing deliveries until the New Year. It expects to miss its sales target of $1.35 billion (£0.9 billion) by $125 million, causing profits to drop to around $230 million. While it expects demand to remain weak in the first half of 2009, the company expects the market to pick up in the second half of the year.

Batteries get better
Korea’s largest chemical company, LG Chem, and Switzerland-based STMicroelectronics (ST), have unveiled details of a new car battery pack that the companies say will ‘significantly extend the potential of electric and hybrid vehicles’. The batteries will combine LG Chem’s lithium ion batteries with ST’s battery management chip to control the charging and discharging cycles to increase battery reliability.

INDUSTRY

More misery for industry employees
No sooner had DuPont and Dow announced plans to shed a combined 7,500 full time jobs and 10,000 contractor positions, than SABIC LyondellBasell and Praxair followed suit.

During the next year, LyondellBasell has said it will cut 2,500 jobs, some 15 per cent of its workforce, while SABIC has announced plans to cut 1,000 jobs, 10 per cent of its workforce. Praxair’s 1,600 job cuts amount to a lesser 5.7 per cent of its workforce.

Carbon trader gets offset
The world’s leading carbon-offset project certification and validation company, Det Norske Veritas, has had its accreditation temporarily suspended after a spot check by CDM (the Clean Development Mechanism arm of the UN’s Kyoto Protocol) found ‘serious flaws’ in its project management.

With 2007 revenues of $1.1 billion, Det Norske Veritas, is the largest of the 19 companies entitled to approve such projects, having dealt with almost half of the 1,200 projects approved by the CDM.

Arkema – a peroxide blonde?
Arkema, France’s leading producer of chemicals, has bought GEO Specialty Chemicals’ organic peroxide business for an undisclosed sum. According to the company the dela will give Arkema a solid industrial base for producing specialty organic peroxides and improve its market access in the US.

Teflon lawsuit fails to stick
DuPont has avoided a class action lawsuit over claims the US chemical giant failed to warn consumers that heated Teflon may be dangerous. The judge ordered that the trials must be heard separately due to difficulties in determining which of the plaintiffs actually owned non-stick cookware containing DuPont Teflon.

PHARMACEUTICALS

Merck goes bio
US pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. is to set up a $1.5 billion biologics division, Merck BioVentures, which will develop both novel and follow-on biologics. The division’s first follow-on biologic is already in clinical development and it hopes to launch it during 2012. The business unit will employ the sugar engineering technology the firm acquired with its 2006 purchase of GlycoFi to take advantage of the significant biologic patent expiries that will occur between now and 2017.

BMS and Exelixis join forces in fight against cancer
Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) is paying US biotech Exelixis up to $240 million to get its hands on two cancer drugs. One of the drugs, XL184 – a small molecule inhibitor of MET VEGFR2 and RET- is already in Phase III clinical trials for medullary thyroid cancer. The other, XL281, is an RAF Kinase inhibitor and is currently in Phase I development for the treatment of patients with advanced solid malignancies.

Valaent to buy dermatology expert
US specialty pharma firm, Valeant, is to buy dermatology development expert Dow Pharmaceutical Sciences for $285 million. Dow Pharmaceutical Sciences (no relation to Dow Pharma – the pharmaceutical arm of the chemical company Dow) made its name as a service provider, but also has three products of its own in Phase II development.

LABORATORY

Waters gets environmental
US analytical instruments maker, Waters, has bought Belpere’s Analytical Products Group (APG) to create ‘the world’s most comprehensive environmental proficiency testing’ company, for an undisclosed amount. APG had 2007 revenues of around $4 million, and will be merged into Waters’ environmental research associates group.

Lab suppliers cut forecasts
The economic downturn is causing laboratory instrument makers and reagent suppliers to cut revenue forecasts as the pharmaceutical and chemical industries look to cut investment in equipment. Instrument maker Waters expects fourth quarter revenues of $410 to $420 million – 5 per cent down compared to last year’s results.

Meanwhile, Agilent has reported that while revenues grew 2 per cent to $1.48 billion for the fourth quarter of 2008, it expects revenues to drop by as much as 4 per cent.

The fortunes of both companies are seen as good indicators of the laboratory instrument industry, with Waters having seen 12 per cent growth in sales during the first 9 months of the year before the recession caused sales to drop by around 5 per cent.

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Two leading groups of mass spectrometrists have come up with new routes for detecting melamine in milk. Both methods could potentially be developed into a portable detection kit for use in onsite product quality control.

In the wake of the Chinese melamine in milk scandal in September 2008 – where the industrial chemical was found in babies’ milk and blamed for illnesses affecting tens of thousands of infants – there has been a demand for a simple, fast and cheap detection technique. Two research groups from ETH Zurich, Switzerland and Purdue University, US, have now independently come up with new detecting routes using tandem mass spectrometry. The routes differ in the details of the ionisation methods i.e. how the samples are ionised, and both offer detection limits of few nanograms of melamine per gram of milk and can rapidly make their way through 30+ samples per hour.

To read more see James Hodge’s Chemical Science article, or read the papers themselves on the Chemical Communication’s Advanced Articles webpage.

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Sometimes I wonder how top scientists survive to become professors – their childhood chemical exploits seem so dangerous! Take Jonathan Sessler, for example. He’s an associate editor for ChemComm, a great scientist and founder of a couple of companies yet as a child he synthesised nitroglycerine and blew up half his dad’s home lab. As he tells Michael Brown in the latest Chemical Technology interview: ‘When my dad came home, he said that all good chemists end up blowing themselves up.’

Then there’s Gary Hieftje, ex-chairman of the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry editorial board, who, aged 10, put secretly plumbed a gas line into his parents’ basement so he could blow glass. Thankfully, he didn’t blow up the house.

And I was slightly alarmed to read in a recent Chemical Biology interview that, as a young child, Russell Cox, now an upstanding member of the Natural Product Reports editorial board, filled an air-raid shelter in a friend’s garden half an inch deep with methylated spirits and set fire to it. Rather surprisingly, his friend’s mum failed to notice.

Read the full interviews with these lucky-to-be-alive chemists on the Chemical Technology and Chemical Biology websites.

Jonathan Sessler Interview: Discovering the Texas molecule
Gary Hieftje Interview: Having a gas
Russell Cox Interview: Fired up about fungi

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