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Archive → June, 2010

Welcome, BoingBoing Readers!

Hello to everyone visiting from BoingBoing. Here at the Haystack we cover the pharmaceutical and biotech industries- our blog is a mashup of the cool science behind the drug headlines and the lowdown behind business deals.
Oh, and we sometimes lighten it up with a video. We promise they are rich enough in science content that you can pass them off as an educational experience.

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Biogen Taps Exelixis’ Scangos–Updated

Reuters and several other news outlets are reporting that Exelixis CEO George Scangos is being tapped as the next leader of Biogen Idec. It’s a curious choice, to say the least. Scangos heads up a small molecule, oncology-focused biotech that has yet to commercialize a product, and Biogen Idec has several biologic drugs on the market and multi-billion dollar sales.

So why Scangos? My only thought is that Biogen has been wanting for years to up its presence in the small molecule space, and Scangos certainly has experience on that front. Only it was a different ball of wax at Exelixis: all those small molecules in the pipeline, successful or not, were home grown. Biogen, on the other hand, has pretty much bought all the small molecules in its pipeline (see its 2006 acquisitions of Conforma Therapeutics, which brought a series of Hsp90 inhibitors for cancer, and Fumapharm, which brought the dimethyl fumarate BG-12, now in Phase III trials in multiple sclerosis). The other small molecule in its pipeline, the Parkinson’s drug vipadenant, was discovered at Vernalis. Do they think Scangos can lead them in the right direction?

It’s also worth noting that rogue investor Carl Icahn had just two months ago been pushing for a plan to split Biogen Idec into two companies: one focused on oncology, and the other on neurology. Most folks thought the idea was nuts; it would mean putting the majority of the big assets in one basket and creating an oncology company with one product on the market and an otherwise sparse pipeline. Bringing in someone who helped to build an oncology company from scratch might help matters.

Well, readers, I leave it to you. Is there any sense in this choice? Or has April Fools’ Day come early? What does it mean for the future of Biogen? Despite a resurgence of sales in its multiple sclerosis drug Tysabri, many believe its pipeline could use some work. Not to mention Exelixis—the company has hit a rough patch, losing two consecutive partners for its lead drug candidate, and laying off 40% of  its staff earlier this year. Can either ship be righted with fresh leadership?

Update: Well, it’s official. Biogen announced the appointment of Scangos, and Exelixis said its former head of R&D Michael Morrissey, a PhD chemist, will become CEO as of July 15. Some small take aways from the brief conference call Scangos held with analysts this afternoon:

Biogen made a point of underscoring Scangos’ experience with biologics at Bayer, where he worked for a decade before his 14 years at Exelixis. The call clearly seemed crafted to quell any concerns that Scangos lacks experience commercializing products, particularly biotech products. And in his own comments, Scangos seemed to focus more on his time at Bayer, which included working on its hemophilia franchise and securing the company’s deal with Onyx Pharmaceuticals, than on his accomplishments at Exelixis.

Scangos emphasized several times the need to “take a hard look” at how R&D is done at Biogen. He said a pipeline review would begin immediately, in tandem with the search for a new head of R&D. I’m wondering what will go, since as it is the pipeline is not looking too beefy.

Addicted To Growth

The subprime mortgage debacle. The Great Recession. Derivatives and hedge funds. The effective bankruptcy of Greece and the subsequent collapse of the euro. China’s imminent bubble.

The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Weeds resistant to glyphosate. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Global climate change.

The common factor? Humans want too much. Too many humans are greedy to the point of madness, and neither the global economy nor the global environment can withstand the onslaught of our greed.

Our greed, however, isn’t the root cause of the problems we face. Our greed is a symptom of a far more fundamental flaw in the way humans organize their societies and their economies: We are addicted to growth. That addiction to growth stokes the greed that drives the endless and often pointless consumption that we have defined as economic success.

Continue reading →

Missouri, SIUC incidents

I spent today reporting on the lab explosion at the University of Missouri yesterday, along with a bit on the fire at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (SIUC), earlier this month. The story:
Research Lab Explosion Injures Four People

Additional information on the SIUC incident is available here, courtesy of SIUC public information officer Tim Crosby. Hopefully I’ll have more about the Missouri incident in a couple of weeks, when the fire department investigation is complete.

What’s in Your McNugget?

It’s no secret that McDonald’s sells different fast food products in different countries. For example, in Korea, you can get the Bulgogi Burger (pork patty in a bulgogi marinade) and a McBingSoo (Korean shaved ice) to wash it down; in El Salvador, French fries are made out of yuca rather than potatoes; and in Egypt, you can order the McFalafel sandwich and Egyptian cookies.

You may be surprised, however, to find out that even the same product sold in different countries can contain different ingredients. A recent article in CNN.com pointed out that Chicken McNuggets sold in the U.S. contain more calories and saturated fat than McNuggets in Great Britain. What’s more, American McNuggets also contain the preservative tertiary butylhydroquinone (tBHQ) and the anti-foaming agent dimethylpolysiloxane whereas British McNuggests do not.

In the article, Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and author of “What to eat,” recommended that readers avoid foods containing ingredients they can’t pronounce.

Is this really sound advice?

What You Need To Know About Vuvuzelas

1) They are made out of high-density polyethylene.

Vuvuzela Documentary

2) “Apparently 90% of the vuvuzelas in South Africa are made in China, where they are sold at a wholesale price of approximately US$ 0.29 each.” Jorge O. Bühler-Vidal, director of North Brunswick, N.J.-based Polyolefins Consulting.

3) If you want to break into the vuvuzela racket, German machinery maker Arburg can help you.

4) They are awesome.

Author @ Work

BTW, I paid $10 for mine on Ferry St. in Newark, N.J. I would have shelled out $20 if I had to.

Teaching safety resources

Following up again on my Teaching Safety story, I thought I’d share some resources I came across while reporting the story:

  • Via Shelly Bradley of Hendrix College, a few Journal of Chemical Education articles on ways to engage students in thinking about safety:
    • “Teaching General Lab Safety Through Comics” by Pasquale Di Raddo of Ferris State University, (J. Chem. Educ. 2006, 83, 571)
    • “A Lab Safety ‘Scavenger Hunt’” by Terry L. Helser of State University of New York College, Oneonta (J. Chem. Educ. 1999, 76, 68)
    • “A Laboratory Safety Trivia Game” by Kristin I. Gublo of the State University of New York, Oswego (J. Chem. Educ., 2003, 80, 425)
  • Other JCE papers that might be useful:
    • “Safety Teams: An Approach To Engage Students in Laboratory Safety” by Peter J. Alaimo, Joseph M. Langenhan and Martha J. Tanner of Seattle University and Scott M. Ferrenberg of the University of California, Merced (J. Chem. Educ., DOI: 10.1021/ed100207d)
    • “Introducing Safety Topics Using a Student-Centered Approach” by Steven M. Wright of the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point (J. Chem. Educ., 2005, 82, 1519)
    • “Introducing Proper Chemical Hygiene and Safety in the General Chemistry Curriculum” by Gordon J. Miller, Stephen A. Heideman, and Thomas J. Greenbowe of Iowa State University, Ames (J. Chem. Educ. 2000, 77, 1185)
  • The ACS Committee on Chemical Safety’s Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories: Volume 1 (for students) and Volume 2 (for teachers), plus a quiz based on the material.
  • The safety training materials used by the University of California, San Diego, chemistry and biochemistry department.
  • From Purdue University, a lab safety tutorial that students watch before taking a required safety test every semester before starting lab work.
  • Dartmouth has an animation to illustrate how a fume hood works.
  • Mythbusters addresses the question of whether a compressed gas cylinder can put a hole in a wall.
  • Laser safety from the James R. Macdonald Laboratory for atomic, molecular, and optical physics at Kansas State University.

Assessing safety training

Our cover story in today’s issue, Expanding Safety Training, focuses on ways that a few schools are beefing up the safety training in their undergraduate curricula, in response to incidents and new guidelines from the ACS Committee on Professional Training.

One of the big difficulties in this area, though, is assessing whether new and (hopefully) improved training efforts are actually working. John Nail, chair of the chemistry department at Oklahoma City University, says that’s a difficult task. “We think it’s important that safety should be in our departmental assessment program, but we’re still struggling with how exactly to do that,” he says. “We can count incidents of injuries and other events–that’s not hard–but I’m hoping that we can get a little bit above that and look more at how the students are behaving.” He likens safety exams to the written exam for a driver’s license: “It shows that you know the rules but doesn’t necessarily show that you’re following the rules.”

One approach Nail has proposed to his colleagues is to incorporate a student’s safety performance into a lab grade, beyond a simple “if you don’t show up in appropriate clothes, you get a zero” approach. He’d like to evaluate things such as proper waste disposal and horseplay in the lab. But he’s also open to other suggestions. “I wish I could get some ideas from other people,” he says. “I’ve been struggling with this for about eight years.”

What say you, readers? Any ideas for how teachers could assess the safety performance of their students?