↓ Expand ↓

Archive → March, 2010

Appear in C&EN, Get Presidential Visit?

Back in September I wrote about battery material company Celgard. Today the firm put out a press release saying that President Obama would be stopping by for a visit this Friday, April 2. Coincidence?

Truth be told, it was not C&EN that launched Celgard‘s 15 minutes of fame. At the time of publication, the firm had already scored almost $50 million in DOE grant money AND a visit from agency head Steven Chu. Celgard makes battery separators for lithium ion batteries here in the good ol’ USA (Charlotte, NC to be precise).

Presumably the visit will have something to do with green jobs, but it seems the White House is waiting until the actual visit to put out its own press release.

Don’t Say There Aren’t Opportunities In Chemicals

Here’s a staggering number. According to a new report from the market research group IdTechEx, the market for printed and thin firm electronics will increase from $1.9 billion this year to $55.1 billion by 2020.

That is a compound average growth rate of 40% annually.

The study’s authors, Raghu Das and Peter Harrop, CEO and chairman of IdTechEx, respectively, say 43% of today’s market consists of organic electronic applications like organic light emitting diodes. OLED’s, along with e-paper and photovoltaics will initially make up most of the growth and then Das and Harrop expect batteries, sensors, and transistors to catch on.

What Did Farmers Do Before Roundup?

According to the USDA, in 2009, 91% of soybeans acres planted in the U.S. were planted with seed genetically modified for herbicide tolerance, along with 68% of corn acres. The herbicide-tolerant trait is usually Monsanto’s Roundup Ready. Clearly, Roundup Ready traits are well-loved by U.S. farmers.

I’ve spent approximately 0% of my life on a farm so during my trip to Iowa for the USDA/DOJ workshop on possible anticompetitive business practices in agriculture, I felt a little undereducated on some basic facts, including, what did farmers do before they could spray their fields with Roundup?

USDA scientist studies Giant Ragweed

USDA scientist studies Giant Ragweed

Dairy farmer Paul Rozwadowski from Stanley, Wisconsin helped explain the world before Roundup Ready to me. Rozwadowski plants corn to feed to his dairy cows, and says since his main goal is not to maximize corn production, and he’s happy with the output of his acres, he uses conventional seed. So he controls weeds in the conventional way. He relies on the help of a local agronomist who specializes in weed control and is familiar with the particular qualities of the land in Stanley – the soil, rainfall, temperatures, etc. This professional will visit Rozwadowski’s fields and suggest combinations of herbicides and application methods specific to the particular weeds he finds, and the stage of growth of the corn plant.

When Rozwadowski’s neighbors use Roundup Ready seed, in contrast, they don’t need experts and they don’t need to worry about the type of weed (Roundup is a wide-ranging herbicide for broadleaf weeds) or their crop’s lifecycle. They just spray. This simplifies things.

Minnesota farmer Fred Dauer, who plants soy and corn, along with wheat, oats, alfalfa, peas and sweat corn, also lives without genetically modified seeds. He is also a seed dealer, and says his customers are aghast that he does not rely on Roundup Ready traits. He’s confident that after 34 years of farming he knows how to get the most out of his acres. He pays $130 a bag for seed, while Monsanto’s triple stack (three-trait) seed sells for $400 a bag.  ”I still get top bushels per acre with 1/4 the price for seed. But to other farmers, using non-GM seeds seems risky. The stacked traits are like insurance, even in a high-producing county like Redwood.”

Meanwhile, the weed-controlling agronomists better stick around. Rozwadowski points out his neighbors are having to increase the amount of Roundup spraying because one application is no longer enough to kill the weeds. It turns out that some common weeds are developing resistance to Roundup, including the dreaded giant ragweed.

ArQule Shares Surge on Met-Inhibitor Data

ArQule’s stock has doubled this morning on new data from a Phase II trial of its lead drug candidate ARQ197, in patients with tough-to-treat lung cancer.

ARQ197 targets the Met receptor, a protein involved in helping cancer spread. As we wrote a few years back, in the pantheon of tyrosine-kinase receptors implicated in cancer, Met comes off as a particularly sinister protein. “Met is one of the highest and most frequently occurring gene products in tumors,” George Vande Woude, research director of the Van Andel Institute, a cancer research center in Grand Rapids, Mich., and discoverer of the c-Met gene, told us at the time.

In ArQule’s trial, a combination of Genentech’s targeted lung cancer drug Tarceva, which blocks the EGFR receptor, and ARQ197 kept the disease from spreading for 16.1 weeks versus a delay of 9.7 weeks in patients given Tarceva alone. The results results were more striking in a subset of the population with a specific cell type.

You might look at the data and think, hmm, an extra two months, that’s not much. But its important to remember that these patients are in the latest stages of the disease, and have already been treated with many other drugs that have failed to slow down the cancer. “I think it does provide validation for Met,” says Needham & Co. analyst Mark Monane. “This is solid Phase II data in combination with Tarceva, that’s two targeted therapies together.”

ArQule is also studying using the drug in combination with other targeted agents, like Bayer/Onyx’s Nexavar and Eli Lilly’s Gemzar. “Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship between 197 and commonly used agents? Could be,” Monane says.

Those who have been keeping an eye on the c-Met landscape might recall that Exelixis has two of its own c-Met inhibitors in the clinic. However, the South San Francisco-based company is taking a different approach, and rather than potently hitting that one receptor, is blocking several proteins at once. XL184, partnered with Bristol-Myers Squibb and in Phase III trials, hits MET, VEGFR2, and RET, while XL880, partnered with GlaxoSmithKline, inhibits MET and VEGFR2.

“I think the jury is out on whether you want a single, targeted c-Met inhibitor or something more promiscuous,” Monane says.

GSK and Isis in Antisense Deal

Is antisense making a comeback? Isis Pharmaceuticals this morning announced a deal with GlaxoSmithKline worth up to $1.5 billion to develop drugs to treat rare and infectious diseases.

Here’s how the math breaks down: Isis gets $35 million upfront, and on average $20 million for every program it brings into Phase II trials. At that point, GSK can exercise an option to license the compound and take on all the further development costs. If GSK opts in on and commercializes  all six drugs covered by the deal, Isis ends up with $1.5 billion, and also gets the usual double-digit royalties on sales.

Technically, a range of technologies fall under the umbrella of “antisense,” which describes technology that targets the RNA controlling the production of proteins. That broad term encompasses RNAi, microRNA, and Isis uses oligonucleotides, or a string of nucleic acids, to intercept messenger RNA.

But while RNAi-based drugs have been the darling of investors in recent years, antisense has had a bit more of a rollercoaster ride. The colossal failure of Genta’s antisense drug Genasense (not to mention all the money Aventis spent on it) did not help the technology’s cause. Isis has stuck with it, though, and for good reason: the biotech has a lock on the intellectual property around antisense, and now owns a piece of pretty much any antisense drug in development. Further, by tweaking the chemistry of its oligonucleotides, Isis managed to significantly improved delivery of the genetic bits, a problem siRNA has yet to overcome.

Still, safety questions linger. Isis and Genzyme, which signed a major deal with Isis in 2008 to co-develop the cholesterol drug mipomersen, have seen investor hopes for a multi-billion dollar drug fade as the drug caused liver enzyme levels to be raised. Perhaps the deal with GSK suggests some confidence that the off-target effects of antisense can be tackled.

Update: Needham & Co’s Mark Monane was upbeat on the deal.  ”We believe this collaboration represents another example of the value of Isis’ core technology for the potential treatment of hard-to-treat illnesses.” he said this morning ina note to investors. “Furthermore, the agreement allows Isis to utilize its skills in early stage development, and GSK to use its skills in later stage development.”

Chemical Blunders And Conan O’Brien

In this week’s Newscripts, I wrote about an unfortunate chemical error that made it into print in Ohio. One of our readers, David M. Manuta, sent in a newspaper clipping about road deicers that mentioned a particularly effective salt: “sodium magnesium.” Sadly, this blunder could have been avoided had the writer checked in with a chemist (a regular old chemist–no advanced degrees needed here to clear things up) before publication.

This clipping brought to mind “The Tonight Show” segment entitled “Headlines,” in which Jay Leno uses erroneous bits from newspapers and magazines to make his audience laugh. Of course, this molecular error would probably not amuse the general public–just us chemists. 

But the point I wanted to make in this post is that Leno doesn’t really amuse me that much. I introduced the Newscripts with “Headlines” because he’s popular, although I’m not quite sure why. Personally, I’m With Coco. As a tribute to Conan O’Brien and as a way to repent for my mention of Leno, I was going to repost last year’s hilarious clip of O’Brien chastising the New York Times

for a blunder about boron that it printed. The problem is that NBC (“The Man”) has taken the video down.

This leaves me with two questions. 1) Does anyone out there still have the clip to share? and 2) Does anyone have any other published chemical errors that they’d like to share?

“Safety first”

Via the skeptical chymist, Nature Chemistry

has an editorial on lab safety in its April issue. The conclusion:

Although legislation can put policies and procedures in place to try to minimize the safety risks in chemical laboratories, accidents will still happen and no law will prevent them. Only a wholesale acceptance of responsibility from top to bottom will do. From the top, academic departments must do more to ensure that safety comes first for all staff and students. Faculty members should instil their groups with a strong culture of safety and be prepared for work to go a little more slowly for it to go more safely.

Post-doctoral workers must realize that their habits will be imitated by more junior members in the laboratory and so they should act accordingly and be prepared to mentor their co-workers. Finally, undergraduate and postgraduate students should exercise their right to express concern over their colleagues’ practices. It must be acknowledged that safe practices are not there to make lives more difficult, but to save those lives — it is only through actively using those safety measures that accidents will be reduced to as low a level as possible.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is that when we teach chemistry, fundamentally we’re teaching about reactivity. Reactivity, of course, is key to safety considerations, whether we’re talking about a highly exothermic reaction, cyanide inhibiting cytochrome c oxidase, or how to dispose of laboratory waste. So why are safe lab practices often seen as a nuisance or a barrier rather than an integral part of learning about and doing chemistry, from high school on up?

Never Be Lied To Again

At a luncheon with some chemistry industry people, I brought up one of my new favorite websites: marinetraffic.com.

The site aggregates information from ship Automatic Identification System transponders and maps the position, heading, and speed of large ships all over the world. You can browse the site geographically or even track a particular ship. The site classifies data according to type of vessel—tanker, cargo, etc. And if you click on a ship’s icon on the map, you can get the size of the vessel and even pictures that have been uploaded to the site.

I have been playing with the site at my Staten Island home, looking at a map of Lower New York Bay on the screen and then running to the beach across the street to see the ships in person.

Shipspotting has always been a hobby of mine, but this site could provide some serious business information. I have heard stories over the years about oil tankers moored off the coast waiting for oil prices to climb before heading into port. I told a neighbor who exports chickens to Poti, Georgia, about it.

A tug escorts a tanker through the narrows.

My lunch companions where pretty interested in what I had to say about the site. They started asking questions and writing things down on paper—not the sort of thing that I am accustomed to as a reporter. One of the companions, a purchaser at a major chemical firm, even remarked that he wouldn’t be lied to anymore by suppliers with false promises of when shipments will arrive.