April 2009



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In this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast, science writer Brian Clegg tells us about the element that often get confused with the flowering plant geranium

 

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Well I’ve just got back from visiting Agilent’s HPLC liquid chromatography and capillary electrophoresis (CE) design and manufacturing base in Waldbronn, Germany and I have to say I was very impressed – not only with the facility, but also with the three new product launches.

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In a week where the UK news has been dominated by the budget and government’s plans to guide the UK out of recession, there has been a slew of financial results released from across the sectors – most of them indicating that the recession is still biting hard.

PHARMACEUTICAL

According to a report by pharmaceutical industry experts IMS Health the global pharmaceutical market is only expected to grow by 2.5 – 3.5 per cent during 2009, with global pharmaceutical sales topping $750 billion (£514 billion). This forecast is down 2 per cent on the forecast made by the company last October when it predicted worldwide sales would top $820 billion.

‘We see the worldwide financial crisis contributing to record-low sales growth this year. The pharmaceutical industry is not recession-proof, but it is insulated to a greater extent than other industries where spending is more discretionary,’ said Murray Aitken, senior vice president, Healthcare Insight, IMS.

The company expects to see sales from those countries where patients pay a high proportion of their drug costs, such as the US, China and Brazil, to see the slowest growth. In fact, IMS is predicting that the US pharma market, the world’s largest, will contract by as much as 2 per cent.

‘The economic crisis is adding another layer of complexity to an already challenging market environment,’ said Aitken.

GSK’s profits plummet

The world’s second largest drugmaker, UK-based GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), has reported a 31 per cent fall in operating profit, before ‘major restructuring’, for the first quarter. Despite group turnover only falling 5 per cent to £2.3 billion, operating profits fell to £1.98 billion.

Strikingly, US drug sales fell 22 per cent to £2.3 billion as generic competition tore into sales of many of its established brands.

‘This first quarter performance was indicative of what we always expected to be a year of two halves for GSK,’ said Andrew Witty, GSK’s chief executive.

‘In this first half of the year, our performance will be heavily impacted by the year-on-year comparative effect of generic entries in the USA. However, in the second half of 2009, this impact is projected to reduce and we expect to see increased sales contributions from new products.’

Some of those new products will come from the recently acquired US dermatology expert Stiefel Laboratories, which GSK bought earlier this week in a deal worth up to $3.6 billion. According to Witty, the deal ‘will create a new world-leading specialist dermatology business and re-energise our existing dermatology products’.

Merck slumps as Schering ploughs ahead

Merck & Co.‘s operating profits slumped 60 per cent to $1.78 billion despite sales only slipping 8 per cent to $5.3 billion during the first quarter of the year. Schering-Plough, which will soon become part of Merck after it agreed to a $41 billion merger, saw sales fall 6 per cent to $4.39 billion although operating profits rose 250 per cent to $0.93 billion because of cost cutting and charges relating to Schering’s purchase of Organon.

‘Our first-quarter results in part reflect the impact of the difficult global economy on patients, providers and payers, but we remain on track to meet our full-year earnings guidance,’ said Richard Clark, Merck’s chief executive.

‘We believe our planned merger with Schering-Plough will accelerate Merck’s transformation into a global healthcare leader built for sustainable growth and success.’

Meanwhile, Merck has signed up Belgian biotechnology firm Galapagos to help it in the the hunt for inflammatory disease drug candidates, in a deal worth up to €192 million (£171 million).

Novartis growth hidden by currency woes

Swiss pharma giant Novartis saw its first quarter revenues fall 6 per cent to $9.7 billion and its operating profits also fall 6 per cent to $2.3 billion. The results were hampered by unfavourable currency effects which masked a 12 per cent increase in sales of pharmaceuticals when measured in local currencies.

Lilly bucks the trend

Eli Lilly appears to be breaking all the trends, with first quarter revenues increasing 5 per cent to $5.0 billion and operating profits increasing 69 per cent to $1.75 billion after its acquisition of ImClone last November. Strikingly, the company’s US sales grew 13 per cent to $2.87 billion while sales to the rest of the world fell 4 per cent to $2.17 billion.

Pfizer to fund UCL’s stem cell therapy

Pfizer is collaborating with University College London to gain a better understanding of how to develop stem cell-based therapies for ophthalmic conditions.

Pfizer will provide funding to UCL in order to help its researchers gain a better understanding of how to human embryonic stem (hES) cells differentiate into retinal cells – work that may eventually lead to a cure for both wet and dry macular degeneration.

‘While we have much to learn about how stem cells can be used therapeutically, we are confident that this relationship will increase that understanding and help us advance to a time when our work may benefit patients worldwide,’ says Ruth McKernan, chief scientific officer of Pfizer Regenerative Medicine.

CHEMICAL INDUSTRY

Cefic, the European Chemical Industry Council, has announced in its Chemical Trends Report that output from the EU chemical industry (except pharmaceuticals) decreased by 22 per cent in January 2009 compared with last year. The price of chemical products increased by an average of 6.6 per cent, with basic inorganics rising 27.4 per cent and petrochemicals 7.1 per cent.

Confidence in the sector fell in March, with manager’s reporting that order books are looking increasingly negative.

DuPont’s sales slide

DuPont saw its first quarter sales fall 17 per cent to $7.2 billion and operating profits halved to $749 million as the company was hit by the recession. Sales to Europe and the Asia-Pacific region fell 28 per cent, while domestic US sales fell 9 per cent.

DuPont’s Agriculture and Nutrition segment saw sales grow 6 per cent while its other four divisions all saw sales slump.

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‘Our strong first quarter performance in Agriculture & Nutrition and pharmaceuticals, combined with gains from our pricing discipline and cost and capital reductions, helped to offset the impact of the largest decline in industrial demand in decades,’ said DuPont’s chief executive Ellen Kullman.

‘As we committed to do in December, we are addressing the more challenging economic conditions with further steps to aggressively manage costs, enhance productivity and operate even more efficiently.’

Sabic swings to loss

The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) has reported a net loss for the quarter of SR 970 million (£180 million) compared to a net income of SR 6.9 billion last year, due to the ‘continued decline in prices for most petrochemical products and metals’. Analysts have said the news does not bode well for the firm’s rivals Dow and BASF as the price it pays for its feedstocks is lower than its competitors in the US and Europe.

Bayer Blasted

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The US Chemical Safety Board has stated in a preliminary report that a major explosion at Bayer CropScience’s plant in Institute, West Virginia, last year was preventable. They found that deficiencies in the plant equipment and safety procedures, as well as inadequate training caused the thermal runaway of the ‘controlled’ decomposition process of methomyl (an intermediate in the production of Bayer’s Larvin insecticide), killing two operators and exposing staff and emergency services personnel to hazardous chemicals.

The accident occurred after an upgrade to the computer system controlling the reactors. Operators had not been adequately trained on the new system and had overridden safety systems to overcome inadequacies in the vessel heating system. A detailed investigation is ongoing.

Linde group sustainable hydrogen
Industrial gas and engineering providers The Linde Group are to build a demonstration plant in Leuna, Germany, which will convert glycerine into hydrogen fuel. Glycerine, a by-product of biodiesel production, will be reprocessed, pyrolysed and reformed into a H2-rich gas mix that can be fed into the existing Leuna plant to be purified and liquefied. The hydrogen will be used to fuel initiatives in Hamburg and Berlin.

Air Liquide to recover CO2

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Gas giant Air Liquide has announced that it will build another €10 million CO2 recovery unit for a BassGas natural gas-fired power station in Southern Australia.

The unit will recover, liquefy and purify 69,000 tonnes of CO2 per year for re-use in fire extinguishers, fizzy drinks, food preservation and water treatment. According to the firm, the market is growing at around 4 per cent a year and currently uses some 200,000 tonnes per year.

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Last night, during a ‘star-studded’ ceremony at Burlington House, Hagan Bayley from the University of Oxford was announced as the 2009 Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year. Hagen won the award for his founding role in Oxford Nanopore Technologies – that is developing the first single-molecule, label-free method of sequencing DNA.

To learn about Hagan’s recent work see our news story on his technique to electrically detect individual DNA bases cut from a single strand of DNA published in Nature Nanotechnology. Also look out for a profile of Hagan, and his research, in the June issue of Chemistry World.

Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year is an annual award that recognises an individual’s contribution to the commercialisation of research.

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Chlorotoxin, a short peptide found in scorpion venom, has been combined with iron oxide nanoparticles that act both as an MRI contrast agent and to increase the effectiveness of the venom in killing cancer cells.

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The team, led by Miqin Zhang at the University of Washington in Seattle, US, found that the nanoparticle/chlorotoxin combo could inhibit the invasive action of brain-cancer causing glioma cells by around 98 per cent, compared to 48 per cent for the toxin alone. Their paper was published in the appropriately named journal, Small.

Diagram of the nanoprobe – the chlorotoxin (CTX) is held onto the iron oxide nanoparticle by a short polymer linker ((C) Small)

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In this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast Katherine Haxton, from the University of Keele, highlights the metal that speaks of prestige, value and power

  

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Chemistry World has thrown itself whole-heartedly into the social networking revolution. It’s now easier than ever to get the latest news and research from your favourite chemistry magazine and get involved (that’s what this networking thing is all about, right..?)

 

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An American animal rights activist – accused of targeting a UK-based animal testing company – has been added to the FBI’s most wanted list.

Daniel Andreas San Diego is wanted for the 2003 bombings of two US biotech companies, who were carrying out work for Huntingdon life sciences in Cambridgeshire.

The FBI has offered a $250 000 reward for information leading to his arrest. Read more in the TimesOnline article.

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We are looking for a student member to work with us this summer, gaining experience as a science journalist on both Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry – fancy giving it a go? The selected candidate will experience the complete editorial process from picking what news to report, through writing and editing, right up to final web and print publication. A once in a life-time opportunity (although as I work on Chemistry World my opinion is more than a little biased!).

This eight week position is supported by the Marriott Bequest Trust – with a bursary of £1750. We ask that applicants have an interest in science communication, demonstrate an enthusiasm for writing and are also (probably) coming towards the end of your chemical science undergraduate degree or postgraduate course. If this sounds like you, visit the RSC recruitment pages to find out more.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

PS: The deadline is 18 May, so get a wriggle on

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On Friday 17th, many news outlets in the UK reported the accident of a boy aged nine, who had accidentally fallen into a vat of acid when trying to retrieve his football from the roof of a disused workshop. They then go on to identify the acid as caustic soda, a substance “also known as sodium hydroxide, (which) can cause severe burns, scarring and blindness.”

Now, I don’t know about you but the last time I checked caustic soda was classified as an alkali and not an acid… Oh well!

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