July 2011



Thursday morning’s session at ISACS 5 was a masterclass in medicinal chemistry, with a series of talks on developing drugs or probe molecules for a variety of medically related targets. But the highlight for me was Ali Tavassoli from the University of Southampton, UK. He has developed a rather elegant way of looking at how protein-protein interactions that modulate gene transcription are affected by metabolic changes. The idea is to use an ingenious system he calls SICLOPPS to make small cyclic peptides within cells when triggered by a particular protein-protein interaction. The peptides can then interfere with the protein binding and reveal how it affects transcription.

Building and thinking with DNA

The first session of the afternoon took quite a different tack, with Erik Winfree from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, US, and William Shih from Harvard University in Boston, US, talking about cool uses for DNA.

Winfree has developed systems for making programmable logic circuits using DNA strands. As a computer scientist, Winfree is aiming for systems that can be assembled just like regular electronic components. His circuits end up quite complicated, and can do things like calculate square roots and play memory games. At the moment, they are certainly a lot slower than silicon-based computers, and can’t always be reversed and re-used, but the concept is certainly inspiring. This video gives a fuller explanation of the system.

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FDA warns of falsified drug data – Clorox unhappy with $10.7bn takeover bid – And new warnings about Pandemrix flu vaccine

CHEMICAL – Dow and Saudi Aramco have only just started building Sadara, their $20 billion (£12.3 billion) chemical joint venture based in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and they are already putting in place the first collaborations. The new company has agreed to create a joint venture with Belgian chemical major Solvay – a plant in Jubail that will supply hydrogen peroxide to Sadara for producing propylene oxide. Propylene oxide is used to make propylene glycol, polyurethanes and glycol ethers. The Sadara chemical complex will use a ‘flexible’ petroleum cracker to make 3 million tonnes of chemical products per year.

PHARMACEUTICAL – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned pharma companies about US company Cetero Research, a contract research organisation (CRO) that it claims has been falsifying data. The agency found ‘significant instances of misconduct and violations of federal regulations, including falsification of documents and manipulation of samples’. It says that analysis conducted by the company between April 2005 and June 2010 in support of marketing applications may need to be repeated. Cetero says that two years ago six chemists at its facility in Houston, TX, misreported when samples were extracted prior to analysis in order to claim they had worked more hours than they actually had. The company initiated its an internal investigation and notified both its clients and the FDA to notify them of its concerns.

CHEMICAL – Brazilian petrochemical company Braskem has bought Dow’s polypropylene business for $323 million. Braskem says this makes it the leading polypropylene producer in North America. The company will absorb two US and two German manufacturing sites together making about 1 million tonnes of polypropylene per year.

CHEMICAL – US consumer products company Clorox, best known for its bleach, is being courted by legendary investor Carl Icahn. The company’s board has rejected the latest takeover offer of $80 per share, equivalent to $10.7 billion, claiming in its letter of reply that it ‘substantially undervalues Clorox and is not credible’. In addition, the board said the ‘your proposal lacks detail and contains significant conditionality’.

PHARMACEUTICAL – The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has changed its advice about flu vaccine Pandemrix, saying that young people under the age of 20 should avoid it unless alternative vaccines are deemed unsuitable. The vaccine, from UK pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), was widely used during the recent swine flu pandemic, but has been linked to narcolepsy – a rare sleep disorder characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness – in young people, particularly in Finland and Sweden prompting the EMA to conduct a review. The EMA found evidence that the risk of narcolepsy was 6-13 times higher in young people who had received the vaccine compared with their unvaccinated peers. This corresponded to an extra three to seven cases in every 100,000 vaccinated people. GSK says that globally over 31 million doses of Pandemrix have been used since its approval. It has received reports of 335 cases of narcolepsy in people vaccinated with Pandemrix, with 68 per cent of those coming from Finland and Sweden.

PHARMACEUTICAL – A fire has ravaged an R&D site in Canada owned by privately owned company Naeja Pharmaceuticals, according to news reports. Residents living near the site in Edmonton, Alberta, were initially told to stay indoors and keep their windows closed because of the potential health risks presented by the smoke. The site has laboratory space for 130 scientists. The company thinks the fire started in a refrigerator for storing chemicals and led to a small explosion in the building.

Andrew Turley


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The RSC’s 5th International Symposium on Advancing the Chemical Sciences (ISACS5) is being held in (surprisingly sunny) Manchester this week. The theme of the meeting is ‘Challenges in chemical biology’, which has – in true chemist style – been interpreted in the broadest sense, with talks ranging from origin of life theories to drug design.

Ribosomes do the hokey cokey

The meeting kicked off with a double whammy of Nobel prize winners. Thomas Steitz from Yale University in Connecticut, US, and Venki Ramakrishnan from the Medical Research Council’s Laoratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK, gave enlightening talks about the inner workings of the ribosome – our cells’ protein factories. Steitz pointed out that certain protein sequences cause the ribosome to stall, and abandon synthesis. By understanding what causes this, his group, along with spin out company Rib-X, are hoping to design new antibiotics that can stall bacterial ribosomes.

Both talks were illustrated with videos – Steitz included one made by a former student set to the tune of the hokey cokey, and Ramakrishnan showed this one, of how the ribosome goes about translating RNA into protein.

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Akshat Rathi finds relief with one of the first clinically useful anaesthetics in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast

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Naphtha from plastic waste – BASF working on cooling stuff with magnetism – And postive opinion for anticancer drug Zytiga 

CHEMICAL – Brazilian petrochemical giant Braskem says that from the end of 2012 it is going to start making naphtha – a broad mix of liquid hydrocarbons – from ‘post-consumption recycled plastic’. It will spend $25 million (£15 million) on a recycling unit from waste treatment company Novaenergia, which will supply the raw material. The unit will process 450 tonnes of waste per day, churning out about 1400 m3 of naphtha per year, as well as fuel oil. And Braskem says it will halve the amount of material that has to be dumped as landfill.

CHEMICAL – Süd-Chemie, a recently acquired subsidiary of Swiss chemical company Clariant, has started building a plant for converting agricultural waste into cellulosic ethanol as part of a €28 million (£25 million) project. The company says that it will be the largest such plant in Germany, producing 1000 tonnes of cellulosic ethanol per year, primarily from wheat straw. The plant will use the ‘Sunliquid’ conversion process, which involves yeasts for biocatalysis and has already been tested at smaller scales.

GREENTECH – US chemical major DuPont has agreed to buy Innovalight, a company specialising in printing technology for silicon based photovoltaics. The companies have not disclosed financial terms. DuPont says it made  sales in 2010 of $1 billion from the photovoltaic market, and is aiming to reach annual sales of $2 billion by 2014.

CHEMICAL – German chemical major BASF is collaborating with the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) in the Netherlands on magnetocaloric materials – which the company says might make refrigeration gases obsolete. Magnetocaloric materials heat up when moved into a magnetic field and cool down when moved out. ‘Theoretical considerations reveal an energy savings potential of up to fifty per cent,’ says Thomas Weber, who heads the Future Business unit at BASF. The two organisations have been working on the materials since 2008 – the latest collaboration is to commercialise the materials, which do not need gaseous refrigerants to work as cooling systems.

PHARMACEUTICAL – US healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson has won a positive opinion in Europe for anticancer drug abiraterone, marketed as Zytiga in the US, where it was approved last month. The drug is for the treatment of prostate cancer. In trials, it has delivered a four month increase in overall survival – from 11 months to 15 – for patients who had already received some form of chemotherapy.

PHARMACEUTICAL – Fampyra (fampridine) from US biotech Biogen Idec has been approved in the EU to help patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) improve their walking. Most patients with MS lose the ability to walk as the disease progresses. The drug was developed by Acorda Therapeutics, which markets it as Ampyra in the US. Biogen Idec is licensed to develop and market fampridine in the rest of the world. The approval is ‘conditional’, meaning it must be renewed annually and more trials are needed. The EU uses conditional approvals to deliver new drugs, with the potential to drastically improve treatment, to the patient population faster than would otherwise be possible. Fampyra improves neurologic function by increasing impulse conduction across demyelinated neurons.

Andrew Turley

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Recently, there have been reports that we aren’t getting enough vitamin D. In fact, it’s got so bad that in Cardiff, children have been getting rickets. So what should we do about it? How about eating mushrooms. That’s not such a crazy idea as you might think, as long as they’ve been on a tanning bed first. (more…)

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25 July 2011: Have something to say about an article you’ve read on Chemistry World this week? Leave your comments below…

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A selection of US pharma industry mergers – South African plans for a state-owned pharma company – And Chantix is OK in the EU (more…)

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Brian Clegg is seeing double and treading on eggshells around a ubiquitous mineral in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast

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A big new source of uranium in India? – A nicotine addiction vaccine flops – And the EU sets out how biofuels are to be certified (more…)

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