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March 1, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 9


Explosive workforce

Mild-mannered chemists need not apply, or so thought Donald Kelsey, a staff research chemist with Shell Chemicals, when he happened upon Torrent Laboratory's job posting for a "Volatile/Semivolatile Organic Chemist."

"It must be an exciting work environment," Kelsey remarks, "especially if there are other volatile or semivolatile chemists with whom to work."

The posting reminded at least one C&EN editor of graduate school, particularly the ad's penultimate sentence: "Involves weekend work."

M&Ms as a model of efficiency

M&M candies pack more tightly in random arrangements than gumballs, a finding that could have significant implications for materials science. New York Times reporter Kenneth Chang describes the discovery in the Feb. 13 issue.

Chang writes that identical spheres will take up about 74% of a given volume when they are neatly stacked, like particles that are neatly ordered in a crystal lattice. But the spheres will fill only 64% of the space when allowed to run randomly, as particles do in glasses and ceramics.

New research published in Science [303, 990 (2004)] by researchers based at four institutions shows that spheroids with an aspect ratio similar to original M&Ms can fill up to 71% of the space when randomly arranged.

With the help of a medical magnetic resonance imaging device, the researchers created a computer simulation that allowed them to virtually deform the candies and generate packing predictions for increasingly aspherical particles. Certain ellipsoids, they found, can achieve the densest possible lattice packing when poured randomly.

Both the real and simulated M&Ms also came in contact with more of their neighbors than the spheres, which prompted the researchers to suggest that ceramics could be made stronger by using ellipsoid-shaped powder particles.

The packing project, Chang writes, started with a reproduction of an 18th-century experiment in which packed peas were soaked until they swelled, revealing their arrangement. The exact reproduction failed, as 21st-century peas are bred not to swell in water. Couscous provided an alternative medium for this part of the experiment.

Goat serum drug tested as MS treatment

The Jan. 25 Sunday Times of London details dramatic improvements reported by some patients with multiple sclerosis in trials under way in England of a drug derived from goat serum.

The drug, originally developed by Angus G. Dalgleish of St. George's Medical School, in London, to treat HIV/AIDS, uses polyclonal antibodies from the serum, or the fluid portion of blood, of goats that have been inoculated with a variety of vaccines to generate neutralizing antibodies. While the drug did not work well enough to be developed as an HIV/AIDS therapy, the strong anti-inflammatory properties of the serum steered researchers toward its potential usefulness in the treatment of MS.

Three separate clinical trials are currently being conducted by Daval International. The Times report claims that the treatment, given as a weekly injection, has helped some patients to walk, regain vision, and regain the use of limbs after years of serious disability caused by MS. Of 130 patients in clinical trials, 85% report major improvements with no side effects. The drug is also of interest in that it took three years to develop at a cost of only about $6.3 million.

David Maizels, a doctor in Chiselhurst, England, who treated patients in conjunction with the trials, told the Times he has never seen anything like it. "I want to emphasize that this in not a placebo effect. The improvements are sustained, and there are almost no side effects. At times, the results are amazing," he said.

Among patients who have been treated in the trials is Alan R. Osmond, the eldest member of the Osmonds singing group, who was diagnosed with MS 17 years ago. Osmond is a major campaigner in the U.S. for curing MS.

Ken is away. This week's items were contributed by Bethany Halford, Victoria Gilman, and Rick Mullin.


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