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Archive → December, 2010

Friday round-up

Chemical health & safety news from the past couple of weeks:

  • On Shame and safety showers from Chembark–”A lack of understanding about the operation of the shower is not what poses a problem to safety. What actually is an issue is how people misuse the shower out of an aversion to undressing in front of others.” (Also, from the comments, perhaps departments need to consider the messages they’re sending with stockroom supplies: “why do the stockrooms here sell cotton but not Nomex lab coats, and why does the VWR stockroom here sell multiple styles of safety glasses but not a single style of goggles?”)
  • Minnesota sues 3M over chemical disposal–perfluoro compounds for fabric protectors, fire retardants, and other products; the lawsuit claims contamination of groundwater and the Mississippi River
  • Army inks Fort Detrick cleanup pact
  • Bridges seeping mercury to be removed in Wayne County, Tenn., under agreement–”So far 64 bridges have been identified as potentially being constructed of former mercury cell parts. The mercury is in a concrete-like material on the underside of what are generally one-lane, metal bridges that cross creeks or culverts.”
  • Propane tank in fatal blast lost telltale chemical, lawyer says–apparently the mercaptan added for smell can deplete through a number of pathways, including reaction with rust inside tanks or pipes
  • Plant to destroy old chemical weapons rises in Kentucky

Fires and explosions:

  • A fire in the aromatics plant at Malaysia’s Petronas Chemicals
  • A fire at Adams Plating in Michigan left the owner hospitalized with burns and chromium trioxide-contaminated water and soil
  • An explosion at KMCO in Texas put two people in the hospital; the plant manufactures “antifreeze, brake fluids and other chemical products”
  • An explosion at Particle Size Technology, which makes chemicals for food and pharmaceutical products in Pennsylvania, likely from static electricity igniting chemical dust; the chemical in question is reportedly Polyclar 10, which seems to be polyvinyl pyrrolidone and is used as a beer stabilizer; “Rafferty described the explosion as “huge” because it blew off the bottom two feet of two corrugated metal garage doors, which landed 30 feet away. He said it also “bellied out” an exterior support wall.” But no one was hurt.
  • An explosion at Islamic Orientation Secondary School in Nigeria during some sort of experiment; the teacher is hospitalized
  • A fire at Goodknight Mosquito Coil and Spray in India; six killed and five injured; “According to sources, the fire broke out when workers, basically labourers with little skill, were puncturing cans to let out the chemicals and gases. The cans had expired their best-before-use dates. They said the liquid chemical from the punctured cans was kept in large barrels that also caught fire, resulting in a blow up.”
  • A fire at Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Company in North Carolina; “a container with an unknown chemical caught fire”

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • Chromic acid, 300 L at an airfield in New Zealand
  • Monomethylamine, about 5 kg at DuPont’s Belle plant in West Virginia (if this sounds familiar, yes, the same plant had a monomethylamine leak a few weeks ago)
  • Methanol mixed with water, about 700 gal at Roche Colorado
  • A mercaptan, about a gallon when “a container of the substance was accidentally punctured during snow removal at an Abington business” in Pennsylvania
  • Also snow related: toluene spilled at Quad/Graphics in Tennessee “when an ice chunk fell and struck a handle, opening a valve on the facility’s solvent recovery system and released 300-400 gallons”
  • Hydrogen sulfide at a chemical plant in Calgary, Canada, somehow triggered by an electrical fire, and at an International Paper plant in South Carolina
  • Hydrofluoric acid at a Honeywell plant in Illinois
  • Chlorine gas at an Oregon National Primate Center building and at Redland Water Supply in Texas
  • Black liquor, “a caustic mix of chemicals used in the pulping process,” at the Norske Skog pulp and paper mill in New Zealand
  • Fluorine gas in an applied physics lab at the University of Washington
  • On roads and railways–hydrogen chloride, an explosive gel, and unidentified chemical waste

All the best to our readers for a happy and safe new year!

Who decides what’s an analog of a controlled substance?

“We’re like a naughty Holland & Barrett”: John Clarke, a pharmacology graduate, and Jo Hall have been selling legal drugs (in the UK) since 2006. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/UK Observer magazine

In this quiet week of reflection around the blogosphere, it makes sense that I should put up one last post on the topic that has brought us the most attention this year: synthetic cannabimimetics that have been sold in herbal incense blends such as K2 Spice. While marketed as “not for human consumption,” these products exemplify the growing legal highs industry (Coffeesh0p.com, a UK company run by John & Jo, pictured right, is a well-known example.).

Let’s take a moment to re-hash (I can’t help myself) these marijuana mimics before getting to the question posed in the title.

This series of compounds first synthesized by the laboratory of John W. Huffman at Clemson were originally investigated to establish structure-activity relationships for non-cannabinoid agonists at CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors. (See this post for more background from us and others about these compounds.) That is, Huffman and his collaborator, the late Billy Martin, were testing what structures similar to or different from the naturally-occurring compounds in marijuana could still allow high potency binding and modulation of these receptors.

Endocannabinoid inverse agonists have been explored by several pharmaceutical companies as anti-obesity drugs via appetite reduction (the opposite effect of marijuana). Unfortunately, many of these compounds have failed – rimonabant (Acomplia), most notably – due to increased risk of depression and suicide. Carmen Drahl had an extensive 2009 C&EN cover story on these compounds and other anti-obesity strategies.

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Pushing on

Or: Reject no more!

That’s right, kids. I managed to snag myself a writing internship at last. I’ll be starting at Reuters Health next week. Don’t have much of an idea how I managed to do it, but I did write the world’s most obnoxious cover letter for that application. That might have gotten the editor’s attention. It was a combination of that plus persistence, I imagine. Regardless, yay me!

Off I go, into the wild murky yonder. Photo by flickr user Vermin Inc.

But this is mixed news. I’ll be pretty busy with this internship (and I’m also still writing my thesis, ag), so I won’t be blogging here any more. That’s the sad part.

I want to thank everyone for reading for the past six months. It’s been mostly fun, occasionally hard, and always educational. The blog roundtable from a few weeks ago was definitely the high point, although my interview with Conservation Scientist Greg Dale Smith was a blast, as was meeting Jorge Cham. Smashing a vuvuzela ranks up there, too.

I also want to send my gratitude to my fellow roundtable bloggers: Matthew Hartings, Paul Bracher, and super-duper most especially Chemjobber. He started out as a resource, and turned into a friend. I’ll miss chatting about job stuff with you, CJ.

And sorry if this is starting to sound like an academy award speech, but I also want to thank everyone at CEN for their advice and support, especially Bethany Halford, Jyllian Kemsley, Carmen Drahl, Amanda Yarnell, and Rachel Pepling. Especially especially Amanda and especially especially especially Rachel. How will I cope in the future, in a post-Rachel world? I really don’t know.

So. While all this is sad for me, it might be good for you–a new Electron Pusher is needed. CEN wants to keep this blog going! Send an email to r_pepling AT acs DOT org if you’re interested. We’ll also need a few guest posts too, if you want to test the waters before plunging in, polar bear-like. Or if you just want to write one post. Whatever.

Okay, I’ll be moseying along now. You can still find me at my sad neglected blog (maybe), but definitely on twitter. See ya around.

A C&EN Snowflake

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

Inspired by a recent post on the “Better Posters” blog, a site devoted to making impressive, professional-looking academic posters, I constructed my own version. The author at “Better Posters” provides clear directions for recycling your conference poster by making a very festive, crafty snowflake.

I propose that when faithful Newscripts readers aren’t framing their treasured back issues of C&EN (which ours fans are, of course, wont to do), they can do the same with their favorite covers and pages. I’ve chosen some Newscripts columns and a few colorful covers for a snowflake to display in the halls of C&EN. Let’s see your versions, readers—it only takes about 15 minutes.

Happy New Year!

Takeda Keeps On Truckin’ With Obesity Drug Research

This year’s additions to the pile of setbacks in the obesity drug arena are enough to make anybody wonder whether big pharma companies will continue to invest in the field (was it already two years ago that Pfizer exited obesity research entirely?!). But news today of a pact between Takeda and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute suggests the Japanese drug maker is in it for the long haul.

Takeda’s agreement with Florida Hospital and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute creates a partnership to evaluate potential new obesity drug targets.

Today’s deal is the latest in a string of obesity-related investments for Takeda. Haystack readers may recall that Takeda is Orexigen’s partner for the development of Contrave, the weight-loss drug that is awaiting a decision from FDA in the wake of a thumbs-up from the agency’s advisory panel. The company also has a stake in peptides from Amylin Pharmaceuticals as potential obesity treatments, and it is conducting clinical development in Japan for Alizyme’s lipase blocker cetilistat, a next-generation pill to Xenical (orlistat), the drug sold over-the-counter as alli.

Takeda’s interest in obesity makes sense given its strong history with type 2 diabetes drugs, a class with close ties to the obesity area. A quick look at Takeda’s pipeline is a whirlwind tour of diabetes drug targets, like glucokinase activators and dipeptidyl peptidase-4 inhibitors. The company has also discovered a protein, TGR5, that could be a target for drugs that mimic gastric bypass surgery‘s ability to control diabetes. And they are behind Actos, the well-known diabetes medication which shares its mechanism of action with Avandia. Unlike Avandia, Actos remains on the market, although FDA is currently investigating its safety.

Will Takeda’s strategy pay off? Time will tell- beginning with FDA’s official decision on Contrave by the end of January.

ScienceOnline 2011 Hotel Update

As we excitedly approach the ScienceOnline2011 unconference in currently-snowy Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, we now have to open a second hotel for those who have not yet made their arrangements. Much of the extensive demand appears to come from word among the paparazzi that C&EN’s Rachel Pepling, Carmen Drahl, and Lisa M. Jarvis will be in attendance.

The very kind folks at the Radisson RTP – Mr. Leon Bullard, I’m looking at you – are once again offering to us their US$72/night rate. While the Radisson is not the headquarters hotel (the Marriott will be the site of the Friday workshops), Mr. Bullard informs us that free Radisson shuttles will run between to the Sigma Xi Conference Center and the Marriott.

To book rooms at the Radisson, use this special URL:


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Profile: Congressional Legislative Assistant

Will O’Neal is, in no particular order, a PhD chemist, a former ACS Congressional fellow, and a Congressional Legislative Assistant for Representative Rush Holt.

Will O'Neal, courtesy photo.

“Basically,” O’Neal said, “I am a policy advisor for anything that relates to energy policy, science, research and development, nuclear security, and foreign affairs.”

As a Legislative Assistant O’Neal’s work is highly varied, but heavy on the research and writing, usually involving current events. And it’s mostly, as you might guess, advising.

“I keep the Congressman informed about policy developments or news that affects my legislative portfolio. I write talking points and background materials on upcoming bills and for legislative hearings or floor action in the House. I prepare the Congressman for public events and staff him at meetings. I develop policy proposals and draft legislation. I meet with interest groups and constituents,” O’Neal said.

And as you also might imagine, a lot of this work is short deadline and highly depends on the news of the day. So it’s a pretty far cry from doing research in a lab. But even so, that doctoral training comes in pretty handy.

“The skills you learn in science – how to think skeptically about the world, do research, and write – are universal,” O’Neal said. “I have to do really fast research on a daily basis, and I have to be able to pick out what is reliable information and what isn’t. Then I have to be able to summarize it quickly in a way that anyone can understand.”

O’Neal is happy with his chosen career, although working in Congress can be both rewarding and frustrating, he said.

“This job offered the chance to learn new things everyday on an array of different topics and to share that work in a way has a direct impact on our society,” O’Neal said. “But I think overall, the most important thing that is missing in my job is the time to really dig into a topic and gain some depth and expertise. I think if I had more opportunity to delve deeper into certain subjects I could be a better asset to my boss.”

O’Neal never was really interested in industry, and although he liked teaching, didn’t think he’d make a good academic. He learned of careers in public policy by seeing a poster in his grad school hallway advertising the AAAS Policy Fellowship program. While still in grad school, O’Neal got involved in the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. After finishing his PhD, he taught for a year at the Center and managed the Policy Research Shop, “which is a great program that allows undergraduate students to do policy research projects for the New Hampshire and Vermont state legislatures,” he said.

After that, O’Neal was awarded the ACS Congressional fellowship, which is part of the AAAS program. He was placed with Rep. Holt, and hired on after his fellowship was up. He’s worked there a total of two and a half years.

Capitol Hill, photo by flickr user VinothChandar.

For scientists interested in going into policy, O’Neal highly suggests getting some kind of experience in politics before moving forward.

“You will be disappointed if you come to the Hill expecting that scientific arguments win the day,” he said. “Politics is about weighing competing interests, and there may be very legitimate reasons for doing the exact opposite of what ‘science tells you to do.’ It’s very important to understand and respect that part of the job.”

He recommends the AAAS program as a way to figure out if policy is what you want to do, but suggests getting some experience even before you do that.

“Go volunteer on a political campaign or at your representative’s local office,” he said. “You might be surprised at what you see and you’ll be doing a good thing.”

Like most other jobs right now, O’Neal said that employment on Capitol Hill is hard to get.

“It’s tough to find a job on the Hill, but Members and committees are always looking for talented professionals with special expertise. The real difficulty for scientists is that offices like to hire people that have Hill experience. Many staffers get experience by starting off as interns and working their way up.”

This sounds kind of painful for someone who just slogged through 5 years of a PhD, which is why O’Neal recommends the AAAS program. But I’ve heard from a few people that’s getting extraordinarily competitive as well. Remember that program isn’t just for recent grads–anyone with a PhD can apply, which means the applicant pool is potentially huge. The deadline for next year has already passed (December 5), but I found a huge list of policy fellowships at Sheril Kirshenbaum’s blog at Discover. She started it last year, but it looks like she’s been updating as she finds new ones. I haven’t clicked through to find out if they’re all still active, so caveat emptor.

There’s a lot of information about science policy out on the interwebs, but I recommend starting at Science Career Magazine. Good luck!

UPDATE (1/6/11): Leigh passed on a lovely note from Alison Gershen from the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships staff. They also have an extensive list of resources on their site for those interested in policy work. — Rachel

Santa Brings $100M to Elevance, $30M to LS9

Nothing says Happy Holidays like a $100 million funding round.

Elevance Renewable Sciences raised $100 million in its third round of venture funding. The start-up, based in Bolingbrook, Ill., uses olefin metathesis to make renewable specialty chemicals from natural oils. If the phrase “olefin metathesis” rings a bell, its because the innovation’s developers were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, a fact that Elevance mentions as often as possible.

Aside from the Nobel Prize, Elevance is distinguished by the notable fact that it will have a 200,000 ton-per-year commercial plant online next year. The plant will be in Surabaya, Indonesia, at the current production site of its joint venture partner, agriculture firm Wilmar International.

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