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Archive → May, 2010

A belated Friday round-up

Chemical health & safety stories from the last week (or so):

Stemming from the Gulf oil spill (I realize that much of this is drilling rather than chemical safety, but I still think there is food for thought here on process safety in general)

  • The WSJ investigates what went wrong and the response: BP decisions set stage for disaster and There was ‘nobody in charge’. From the NYT, Documents show early worries about safety of rig.
  • Remembering the 11 oil workers who died last month: Families of oil rig victims struggle with a devastating loss
  • 7 Gulf oil spill cleanup workers hospitalized (dizziness, headaches, nausea, rashes, and coughs; why does the Coast Guard spokesperson seem to imply that inhaling “the smell of petroleum” does not equate with chemical exposure?)
  • On using injury rates as a measure of safety performance: Trying to keep track of the Gulf investigations

Other news

  • Safety rules can’t keep up with biotech industry
  • Univ. Delaware grad student injured in laboratory accident in Worrilow Hall (“four small glass containers ruptured” and “no hazardous materials were released”)
  • Drug company arraigned in worker’s death (Sepracor Canada/Roland Daigle)
  • Robert Moses Parkway, N.Y., reopened after chemical spill (iodine pentafluoride; five employees and four firefighters to the hospital)
  • Leetsdale, Pa., chemical spill brings hazmat response, school precautions (ammonium persulfate)
  • Delphos, Ohio, plant accident sends four to hospital (chlorine + oxalic acid)
  • Truck stop in South Carolina reopens after truck leaks chemical (acrylonitrile)
  • Fire at Phillips Lighting factory in Bath, N.Y. (some sort of water reactive chemical)
  • Georgetown, Ky., airport closed for about an hour after hazmat scare (a cement truck ran over a device containing radioactive cesium)
  • Chemical fumes lead to evacuation around Lucite International Tenn. plant (fuming mix of sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide)
  • Two injured in explosion at ATK’s Allegany Ballistics Laboratory, W.Va. (“ATK manufactures tactical rocket motors, warheads, launch eject gas generators, and fabricated metal parts at that particular laboratory”)
  • Dead fish found after fire at chemical factory in U.K. (herbicides, pesticides, and glue-based products)
  • Man is treated for chemical face burns at Wrexham, U.K., firm
  • Fire in chemical shops in India, three hurt
  • Chemical cloud at Lakewood, Wash., building causes hazmat response (cleaning solutions; four to hospital)
  • Pool Shock Mix Causes Chemical Explosion In West Mifflin, Pa. (mixing chlorine, possible contact with something else)
  • Water gun fight in R.I. prompts hazmat case, evacuations (sodium hydroxide)
  • C&EN Microbes quickly degrade a popular biofuel (making it corrosive to the carbon steel used for pipelines and storage tanks
  • C&EN Dioxins reassesed (safe daily dose proposed for 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin)

Lab coats for undergrads

Sorry for the quiet week, folks–I was traveling around Southern California visiting the various sites involved in a massive atmospheric monitoring campaign, CalNex, and Jeff was kept pretty busy trying to keep up with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill response. My safety lesson of the week: Researchers installing instruments onto aircraft such as NOAA’s P-3 not only have to get their instruments to work around take-offs, landings, and the general vibration of a plane, but the instruments have to be installed to withstand crash forces.

I’m also continuing to work on a story about incorporating safety into undergraduate chemistry curricula. This has brought up the question: Just how many schools require undergrads to wear lab coats in teaching labs? Weigh in at the poll below:

Does your institution require lab coats for undergraduates in teaching labs?survey software

You can elaborate in the comments with the name of your institution, if you’re so inclined.

Crisis Over For Dow

Fitch Ratings has raised its outlook on Dow Chemical’s ‘BBB’ credit rating from negative to stable.

The change is as incremental as it gets. It merely suggests that the company is no longer in imminent danger of a credit downgrade.

But for Dow Chemical, it is a little like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists shaving a minute off the Doomsday Clock. The company, beaming from the news, forwarded the Fitch press release to me. “Our credit rating remains a solid investment grade,” the company remarked in an e-mail. There is only one wrung lower for an investment grade rating, so the distinction is a bit like the one between Schaefer and Schlitz.

Fitch downgraded Dow’s credit rating from ‘BBB+’ to ‘BBB’ back in March, 2009, the same week that Dow hashed out a deal to salvage its acquisition of Rohm and Haas. And the downgrade came three months after the Kuwaiti government scuttled the sale of half of Dow’s commodity chemicals business to Petrochemical Industries Co. of Kuwait to form the K-Dow joint venture. Without the $7.5 billion from the JV formation, the Rohm and Haas purchase put about $10 billion in debt on Dow’s books with few apparent prospects–at the height of the financial crisis–to get financing.

In a report issued yesterday, Fitch analyst Sean Sexton said that since last April, Dow has done a good job in handling its debt crisis. It generated $3.4 billion selling Morton Salt, a stake in a Dutch refinery, its share of a Malaysian petrochemical JV, and calcium chloride.

I doubt that any of these divestitures were all that painful for Dow. And the company did avoid selling Dow AgroSciences—as CEO Andrew Liveris intimated he might during the crisis. And, Dow didn’t have to sell the K-Dow assets for a song at the bottom of the business cycle.

Otherwise, Dow did what a lot of companies did—it raised more debt and issued equity. But Dow did it on a grander scale: $8.75 billion in new debt and $3.25 billion in equity.

Fitch is looking forward to Dow raking in another $1.63 billion from the sale of its Styron styrenics and polycarbonate business to Bain Capital. (Word around the campfire is that Bain is paying a very full price for those assets.)

The Fitch report came with a couple of warnings, though. “Fitch notes that the leverage is still high for the rating,” Sexton wrote. And, despite cutting its dividend last year, Dow still has relatively weak cash flows.

Google Doodle Chemistry

Google unveiled today the 2010 winner of the Doodle 4 Google contest held for K-12 students. Chemistry may not have inspired the winner, but it did inspire one of the 40 regional finalists, Emily Caudill. The 15-year old mixed her enthusiasm for chemistry with artistic license to create Google’s logo by way of chemical structures.

She explained her doodle’s connection with the contest’s theme of “If I could do anything, I would…” with this answer:

“… start a chain reaction. If you are wondering how chemistry fits into this, well… it’s simple. The world is made up of chemistry. Every thing in the world is chemistry, and I would make a chain reaction, and make it healthy again.”

Google representatives traveled to each of the regional finalists’ schools to congratulate the students. At Emily’s presentation, she confirmed that she has not yet had a chemistry class. You go, girl.

Perhaps we can convince the professional Google Doodlers to build upon Emily’s submission and render a more chemically-accurate version for the International Year of Chemistry.

A New Electron Pusher

It’s been a little–OK, a lot–quiet around these parts. Sorry about that.

However, I am very happy to share the news that on June 1 Leigh Boerner (of the bunsen boerner) will be stepping in as our electron pusher. Or non-electron-pusher, if at the end of her job search, she discovers a different way of chemistry life. I’m certainly looking forward to reading about both her experiences and the people in nontraditional chemistry careers she’ll encounter along the way.

And speaking of job searching, C&EN currently has two positions to fill. One for a staff artist and one for a digital products manager to join the online team. A chemistry background is not required for either position, but it wouldn’t necessarily go to waste, either.

Vertex Unveils Positive Telaprevir Data

Ending months of anticipation, Vertex Pharmaceuticals unveiled the first set of data from a Phase III trial of telaprevir, a protease inhibitor for the treatment of hepatitis C. The company is expected to submit for regulatory approval later this year, and launch the drug in 2011.

Vertex said that 75% of genotype-1 patients—viewed as the toughest to treat–who received 12 weeks of telaprevir treatment on top of the current standard of care (48 weeks of pegylated interferon and ribavirin) were cured of the infection. Only 44% of patients in the control arm, which received only the standard of care, were cured after 48 weeks. Leerink Swann analyst Seamus Fernandez told investors the results set an “impressively high bar” for treatment in HCV.

Importantly, adding the drug to the standard of care will lessen the total treatment time for many HCV patients. In addition to not being very effective, many people can’t tolerate the harsh side effects associated with interferon and ribavirin. Physicians liken the 48-week regimen to living with a nasty flu for a year. In hopes of halving the number of weeks on interferon and ribavirin, Vertex conducted what is called a “response-guided trial.” If the virus was sufficiently quelled after four weeks with the telaprevir addition, patients went on to receive just 24 weeks total of therapy. The company said “the majority” of patients received just 24 weeks of treatment.

That 24-week figure is a critical one. Merck is hot on Vertex’s heels with its own protease inhibitor, boceprevir. Both companies are expected to launch their drugs next year, and with similarly mild safety issues, analysts say the drug that can shut down the disease the quickest will win. Merck is also conducting a response-guided study and at its R&D day said a retrospective look at its Phase II data suggests patients can be successfully treated in 24 weeks with boceprevir.

BMO Capital Markets analyst Jason Zhang was dead on with his estimates for the drug. As we wrote earlier this month: Zhang expected the Phase III data to show a sustained viral response (the equivalent of a cure) of 75% of patients receiving telaprevir. His guess for telaprevir’s biggest competitor, Merck’s boceprevir? 74% sustained viral response. We’ll have to wait and see how close he comes on that figure, as Merck has been vague about when its Phase III results will be released. The big pharma firm has only said that it expects to present the data at an upcoming conference. My guess? We will likely be waiting for the American Association of Liver Disease’s annual shindig, also known as “The Liver Meeting,” in October.

For Vertex, the Phase III success is a major step in its 15-year long quest in bringing telaprevir to market. Zhang expects it to capture over half the U.S. and European HCV market, bringing in $3.6 billion in peak sales in 2013.

Obesity Musings On Alkermes, J&J News

I am always on the lookout for news in the obesity drug area. But lately two of the molecular components of experimental obesity drugs in late-stage clinical trials-naltrexone and topiramate- are in the news for other reasons.

Alkermes announced this morning that it will receive priority review from FDA for VIVITROL, an injectable extended-release formulation of naltrexone, for treating opioid-dependent patients, with a PDUFA date of October 12, 2010. The idea is that a once-monthly injection of VIVITROL would be given to lower cravings in people with a dependence on opioids such as heroin, Vicodin, or Oxycontin. VIVITROL is already approved for treating alcohol dependence.

It’s Alkermes’s formulation that’s new. Naltrexone as a chemical entity has been around for some time. DuPont originally marketed it as Trexan in 1984 but that form is now off-patent, as C&EN’s Ann Thayer wrote back in 2006. I also promised that there was an obesity connection here, and indeed there is. Naltrexone is one of the two components in Orexigen’s experimental obesity medication, Contrave, as I explained last year. Orexigen has developed its own proprietary sustained-release formulation of naltrexone and the experimental drug’s other active ingredient-bupropion, an antidepressant and smoking-cessation aid that boosts dopamine signaling.

Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has agreed to pay $81 million (that’s $6.1 million in criminal fines and $75.37 million from civil suits) for promoting its epilepsy medication Topamax for several uses not approved by FDA. This story has been in the news for nearly a month now (see Pharmalot’s entry about it here) but the company pled guilty to the illegal marketing just last Friday, placing this item back at the top of my Google News list.

One of the off-label indications J&J was promoting turns out to be obesity, according to the whistleblower who brought the case. Read the legal documents here [pdf format]. Thanks to Jim Edwards at BNET for posting these.

Topiramate (the active ingredient in Topamax) is one of the two active ingredients in Vivus’s experimental obesity drug Qnexa. But Vivus’s formulation uses topiramate at a much lower dose than would be taken as a standalone drug.

Thanksgiving In May

May is Asian American & Pacific Islanders Heritage Month. I didn’t know that until the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Network in Agriculture (APANA) invited me to deliver the keynote speech during their celebration on May 12 at the Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) of the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, in Wyndmoor, Pa.

Preparing the talk made me reflect on how immigrants have flourished in the U.S., thanks to the opportunities the country offers to skilled people who are willing to work hard, starting from the bottom if necessary.

C&EN readers may remember ERRC as the American Chemical Society’s 57th National Historic Chemical Landmark, designated for its scientists’ pioneering work on food dehydration (C&EN, May 7, 2007, page 76). After my visit, I will remember it also as a workplace that exemplifies the federal government’s commitment to diversity in the workforce.

AAPI Heritage Month is a big deal at ERRC, I gathered from Shiowshuh (Allen) Sheen, president-elect of the APANA Philadelphia chapter. Each year the center sets aside a day of celebrations featuring a keynote speaker and an exhibition of arts and crafts reflecting the employees’ diverse heritage. Support comes from the top leaders: Dariusz M. Swietlik, director, and Shu-I Tu, associate director, of the North Atlantic Area Office of ARS; and Sevim Z. Erhan, director of ERRC. The pride of all staff was palpable during my visit.

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