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Archive → January, 2012

Genzyme R&D Layoffs Today

The other shoe has dropped at Genzyme, which last year was acquired by Sanofi, but had yet to experience the kind of major research restructuring that typically accompanies the integration of two pharma companies. Today, Genzyme scientists were told whether their job was being shed or moved. Here’s an excerpt from the official statement:

As part of the integration process between Sanofi and Genzyme, R&D activities were reviewed and assessed. On January 31, 2012, the results of the review of U.S. R&D Genzyme activities were announced, including synergies that unfortunately make some positions redundant. All US R&D Genzyme employees impacted by the integration received notice regarding whether their position would be relocated or eliminated.

The job cuts are separate from the latest round of R&D layoffs at Sanofi. As readers might recall, Sanofi announced last November that it was closing its Bridgewater R&D site, and move discovery and early development activities to Boston. A Sanofi spokesperson tells the Haystack that despite today’s cuts at Genzyme, the company is committed to its presence in Massachusetts, and to maintaining a stable level of jobs there. While R&D is falling under the axe, the company is hiring in manufacturing and multiple sclerosis, she says.

The company has not provided details on how many R&D scientists will be shed, but once more information comes to light, we’ll update readers.

Website helps scientists learn about careers within Federal agencies

As an individual currently employed in the private sector, I must admit to a wide breadth of ignorance regarding what employment opportunities may exist for a scientist within a Federal government agency.

It would I appear that my own personal lack of knowledge regarding government science positions is shared by many others, and this has not gone unnoticed by the very Federal agencies who are in need of top scientists to fill these roles.

Seeking to bring attention to the variety of science and technology (S&T) opportunities available, a pilot website, INSPIREST (careers.science.gov) has been created.

The website was developed through a collaboration of six Federal agencies—the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Labor (DOL), Department of State (DOS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—along with the Partnership for Public Service—and they would like your help in directing its mission to provide useful information to prospective employees at all stages of their careers.

Curious? And how!!

Learn about a variety of science and technology positions available within the Federal goverment. You won't be sorry.

INSPIREST was created in response to a perceived lack of general awareness and understanding of the opportunities in the Federal government for scientists and engineers, but this was not the only factor. Other challenges to nurturing a vital S&T workforce include: increased vacancies of key positions due to growing retirements within the “baby boomer” generation, and competition with the private sector for top talent.

The website’s creators also recognized that USAJOBS.gov—the primary avenue for applying to science and engineering positions for most Federal agencies—had a limited ability to communicate what jobs are available and what these jobs are really like.

I, for one, am grateful that a need was recognized to create a site like this. When I was going through my job search last year, government positions were definitely on my radar, and a few emerged from job search engine queries. I found that gathering information on and applying for these position were long, convoluted ordeals. INSPIREST seeks to demystify that process.

The INSPIREST website currently consists of three main sections. The Profiles section contains interviews with scientists, engineers, and technology specialists (actual people—including chemists and chemical engineers! Here, here and, yes, here) who currently have jobs “related to National priorities such as energy, discovery science, space exploration, national security, international diplomacy, and U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century,” according to the website.

The Resources section contains, not unexpectedly, resources. Okay, about what? Well, you can find information extolling the benefits of public service and the Federal employment experience. There is also key information and resources for finding Federal positions and applying for them.

There is also a section highlighting the six participating Federal agencies. Information is provided regarding the agencies’ respective missions, needs for a highly skilled S&T workforce, and direct links to current employment opportunities.

Uncle Sam can point you to a rewarding S&T career

...to fill out a quick survey...and learn about gov't science careers. That is all. Carry on.

I mentioned that the creators of INSPIRESTwould like your help. To guide the development of the website, they are requesting your feedback through the completion of a brief survey.

This beta site and the opportunity to provide feedback on this pilot will only be available through February 15, 2012. Links to the survey are liberally distributed through all sections of the INSPIREST site, or you can follow this link.

I have taken the survey – it is simple, straightforward and doesn’t take much time to complete. I would urge others to do the same, whether one is considering government S&T positions or not.

This is a chance to influence the creation of what could become a valuable resource for job-seekers. I commend the site’s creators for the transparency of this effort, and hope it continues as the site grows. So, remember, please try to complete the survey by February 15th!

Stay tuned to Just Another Electron Pusher as well over the next few days, as Christine has two upcoming posts, each about individuals with chemistry backgrounds, and who are now in science roles within the Federal government.

Using nitric oxide at high pressure

We have a safety letter regarding nitric oxide reactions in this week’s issue of C&EN:

Chemists at Merck & Co. were performing experiments using nitric oxide at high pressure (10–20 bar) when two instances of an explosion occurred during rapid depressurization of the NO headspace from a 500-mL closed reactor system. No injuries occurred, and damage was contained to the barricaded cell area. Both before and in between these events, NO had been used successfully about 100 times. Each explosion occurred after completion of the reaction, while venting through three-eighths- or one-quarter-inch i.d. Teflon-lined steel-braided tubing to atmospheric pressure.

Static electricity was suspected as the ignition source that, in conjunction with the presence of an oxidant (NO) and fuel (CH3OH), would lead to combustion. To confirm this hypothesis, an investigation was conducted. Preliminary results are communicated here.

The reaction system consisted of NO in conjunction with methanol under basic conditions. A literature search didn’t point to any existing cautionary notes about this reaction. Experimental ignition testing of NO systems was conducted by Fauske & Associates, which showed no combustion unless ignition energy greater than 3 J was used. This exceeds the energy typical of a static discharge, so it does not fully explain the observed combustion.

Further analysis of the reaction headspace using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry revealed that N2O was formed over time from a simple model system of NO + sodium methoxide + methanol. The conversion of NO to N2O and concomitant oxidation of methanol to formic acid proceeds to 50% in about six hours. Testing showed the energy needed to ignite the headspace of methanol under 1 bar of 50/50 NO/N2O is less than 3 mJ, several orders of magnitude lower than for similar systems without N2O.

On the basis of these results, the likely cause of the explosions is the combination of (a) formation of N2O gas and (b) generation of static potential caused by the rapid flow of gas and condensing methanol through the Teflon-lined tubing during rapid depressurization (while venting), which leads to sparking of sufficient energy to cause the combustible vapor to ignite.

We wanted to alert the chemical process industry to risks associated with this particular procedure. Anyone contemplating use of this chemistry should thoroughly evaluate its safety.

Daniel Muzzio, Ephraim Bassan, Erik Dienemann, Mark Weisel, Cameron Cowden, Scott Hoerrner, William Olsen, Michael Man-Chu Lo, Amjad Ali
Branchburg, N.J.

Palm Oil Not Clean Enough for RFS, says EPA

The eco-bonafides of palm oil have been long debated, especially in Europe, and it looks like that cat fight may now move to the U.S. The general charge against palm oil is that plantations devastate rainforests and other native habitats that suck up CO2. That problem seems particularly relevant when palm oil is used to make biofuel; land use changes may undermine any benefit in reducing use of fossil fuels.

Palm oil tree. Credit: Wikipedia

EPA has put out a notice that palm oil biofuels (diesel) do not meet the agency’s standard for climate-change gas reduction in the Renewable Fuel Standard. At a minimum, a renewable fuel has to provide a 20% emissions savings, and biofuels from palm oil rate only as high as 17%.

EPA points out that 90% of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, and that’s where it focused its analysis. In a note, EPA gives two examples of ways that palm oil production fails. “For example, palm oil production produces wastewater effluent that eventually decomposes, creating methane, a GHG with a high global warming potential. Another key factor is the expected expansion of palm plantations onto land with carbon-rich peat soils which would lead to significant releases of GHGs to the atmosphere.”

EPA has opened a comment period on this ruling, and palm oil producers in Malaysia and Indonesia are very likely to file protests. As reported in the  Business Times of Malaysia, that country is already threatening a trade war. The article also says that the EU has similar restrictions.

Palm oil growers who would claim the EPA is biased in favor of trade protectionism would enjoy some company with Chinese solar panel producers who are fighting back against dumping charges from some U.S. solar manufacturers.


Was Demi Moore smoking synthetic marijuana?

My substance abuser writer and researcher friend DrugMonkey (@drugmonkeyblog) just tweeted a CNN story suggesting that actress Demi Moore may have suffered adverse reactions after smoking a synthetic cannabimimetic product:

A woman called 911 soliciting help for actress Demi Moore, whom she said was “convulsing” and “burning up” after “smoking something,” according to a recording of the call obtained Friday from the Los Angeles Fire Department.

[. . .]

“She smoked something — it’s not marijuana, but it’s similar to incense. And she seems to be having convulsions of some sort.”

Reports of tremors and seizures have been accumulating in association with synthetic marijuana products. These products are generally composed of an herbal material that is spiked with one or more synthetic compounds that act at cannabinoid CB1 receptors.

The “burning up” described by the 911 caller in the story would be consistent with some reports of serotonin-like syndrome associated with synthetic marijuana use.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency is currently regulating some of the psychoactive compounds as Schedule I substances, illegal for use or sale as they are deemed as having no medical value. Individual states have also issued bans on compounds containing even more related compounds in these products. However, marketers have been skirting laws by using compounds not expressly deemed illegal in state or federal statutes.

Moreover, analytical crime laboratories across the nation have suffered extensive budget cuts making it difficult to keep up with the demands in determinig which products are illicit.

On a personal note, the synthetic marijuana story that DrugMonkey, dr_leigh, and I have been writing about for two years is growing increasingly disturbing. I just received my second reader email in three months from a father whose son shot himself to death while allegedly addicted to synthetic marijuana products. We’ve been in touch with the US DEA to inquire as to whether similar cases are currently under investigation.

Just as DrugMonkey wrote awhile back (I have to find the post), adverse drug effects with celebrities are usually required before aggressive government action is taken against illicit drugs (death of University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias from cocaine and a congenital cardiac abnormality).

Friday chemical safety round-up

Chemical health and safety news from the past week:

  • Curious Wavefunction weighed in on the circumstances surrounding the death of UCLA researcher Sheri Sangji
  • Chemjobber asked how to talk about chemical safety
  • The University of North Carolina is reemphasizing personal protective equipment in its laboratories “because of recent accidents at university labs across the country”
  • In Canada, the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic District School Board now faces charges for an incident in which a shop student died when an oil drum exploded as he was cutting into it; the charges include “failing to provide instruction or supervision, failing to take every reasonable precaution to protect the workplace and failing to properly acquaint a supervisor with hazards associated with the handling of equipment at the shop”
  • On Apple contractor factories in China: improper hazardous waste disposal and indifference to worker conditions, including hexane exposure and poor dust control

    “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

    “If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?” the executive asked.

  • Newly-available documents relating to a fire at a hazardous waste treatment facility in Australia reveal a history of concerns about the company
  • The Chemical Safety Board reported that many of its recommendations stemming from a West Virginia propane explosion five years ago have been implemented
  • January 22-28 is Hazardous Materials Awareness Week in Florida

Fires and explosions:

  • A fire at Chemical Technologies in South Africa killed two workers

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • A November spill at a Suncor Energy refinery in Colorado is still sending benzene and other chemicals into nearby Sand Creek and South Platte River
  • Permanganate turned the Allegheny River purple in Pennsylvania
  • Hydrochloric acid, about 1 L, spilled at Winthrop University in South Carolina
  • I’m a little confused by this story, but I think maybe an entire shelf–40 L–of tetrahydrofuran came crashing down in a University of Wisconsin, Madison, biochemistry laboratory (or stockroom?); one person received a minor cut
  • And I had to laugh at this one: A Scottish hospital building was evacuated when “a leaking container” of either dry ice or liquid nitrogen was found. “It appears the lid was not securely fastened, allowing the smoke-like gas to escape from the bottle.”
  • On roads, railways, and shipyards: “a material used to make glue”, “a product used in ranching”, some sort of cleaning liquid, fumitoxin (aluminum phosphide)

Not covered: meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels.

Eastman Buying Solutia

I arrive the office this morning, bright and early, as usual.

“Your Top 50 U.S. chemical company survey will get smaller by one company,” C&EN assistant managing editor, Mike McCoy, said.

“Do you want me to guess?” I said.

“Solutia is one of the firms.”

“That is the company being acquired,” I reply.

“That’s right.”

“PPG is buying them,” I guessed.

“No, but that’s an interesting guess,” Mike says. It was a very good guess.


“No, too soon.” Ashland, Mike realized, just bought ISP.


“Very good!” Mike exclaimed, very impressed.

Indeed, Eastman is buying Solutia in a $4.7 billion transaction. The relevant details are in my Latest News story here.

I have a few observations:

1) It seems like a nice, square deal for all parties. My calculations put the cash and stock portion of the deal at $3,357 million and the debt at $1,377 million, combining for the ~$4.7 billion price. The cash and stock represent a 13.8x multiple over adjusted earnings of $243 million.

2) Since declaring bankruptcy in 2003, Solutia has honed its business where it has a strong position such as hydraulic fluids and polyvinyl butyral (PVB) interlayers for windshields. The cash cow of the portfolio is the technical specialties business, which generated a 38% EBITDA margin. It makes the hydraulic fluids, heat transfer fluids, and insoluble sulfur, used to vulcanize rubber.

3) Integration? PVB is made by reacting polyvinyl alcohol, which Solutia makes, with n-butyraldehyde. It just so happens that Eastman is America’s largest producer of n-butyraldehyde, which it uses to make oxo derivatives like 2-ethylhexanol.

4) Solutia is an ex-Monsanto business. Sterling, which Eastman acquired last year, is a former Monsanto unit. Spooky? Yes. Coincidence? Probably.

Celgene & Avila Forge Permanent Ties

Today brought a spate of M&A activity in the biotech space, with Amgen unveiling a $1.2 billion bid for Micromet, and Celgene agreeing to pay up to $925 million for Avila Therapeutics. Both deals brought the acquirer a drug in development to treat blood cancers, while also adding a platform technology to their research engines.

Being all about the chemistry, The Haystack is particularly interested in the Celgene/Avila deal, which involves covalent drug development technology. Celgene is paying $350 million upfront, with the promise of up to $195 million more if Avila’s lead covalent drug candidate, AVL-292, reaches the market. Pushing other covalent drugs through the pipeline could garner Avila shareholders another $380 million.

So what is a covalent drug, anyway? As C&EN’s Lila Guterman described last fall, covalent drugs form a permanent link with their target. By comparison, most conventional drugs are designed to reversibly bind to their targets—in other words, they can stick and “un-stick” to a protein.

The beauty of a covalent drug is that its specificity and potency means it can be given in low doses. As Guterman explains, patients only be given enough of the drug for molecule to reach each target protein molecule, and then another dose only when the body has generated more of that target protein. The low dose means less potential for drug-drug interactions and off-target effects.

Indeed, for years, scientists avoided developing covalent drugs out of fear that serious toxicity will arise if a covalent drug happens to permanently stick itself to the wrong protein. Check out Guterman’s piece for a cautionary toxicity tale from none other than “Rule-of-Five” inventor (and former Pfizer researcher) Christopher Lipinski.

The current generation of covalent drugs, however, is designed to assuage those fears through their highly selective and weakly reactive nature. Avila isn’t the only one banking on better molecular design leading to successful drugs: Zafgen’s obesity drug candidate ZGN433 also covalently binds to its target, an approach that—if it works—could enable it to sidestep the side effect issues that have plagued the obesity drug space.

So are these covalent drugs worth the price tag? Avila’s pipeline is relatively young, meaning there isn’t a lot of data to go on: AVL-292 is in Phase I studies in lymphomas; a compound targeting mutant EGFR is also in Phase I trials; meanwhile, two Hepatitis C drug candidates in preclinical studies. The company has also made public preclinical date on its PI3Kα-selective inhibitor (the same target as Intellikine’s INK1117, one of the drivers behind Takeda’s $190 million acquisition of Intellikine.).