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Chemistry Challenges

by Rudy M. Baum
July 20, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 29

THIS WEEK'S ISSUE of C&EN is chockablock with stories that focus on issues before the chemistry enterprise and developments in diverse scientific areas.

The cover story, by Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley, examines the analytical challenges posed by proteins drugs, which have become a key component of modern medical care. The fundamental challenge is that protein drugs are, by definition, big and complex molecules. They are a product not only of their primary amino acid sequence but also of how they fold, whether they associate into multimers, and the pattern in which they are glycosylated in the cell.

To understand protein drugs, a lab might use upward of 20 to 30 analytical methods. Once a manufacturer has a good understanding of a therapeutic protein, 12 to 15 critical methods will then be used routinely for manufacturing. However, Kemsley notes, which methods get used depends on the characteristics of the protein in question. "You're not simply taking a cookie-cutter approach," one source told her. Kemsley outlines a number of advances being applied to rapidly and efficiently characterize such drugs.

In the Business Department, Senior Editor Alex Tullo compiles C&EN's annual survey of women as directors and executive officers of large U.S. chemical firms. In the decade that C&EN has conducted the survey, there have been no women chief executive officers. Now there are. Ellen J. Kullman is the CEO of DuPont, the third-largest U.S. chemical maker, and Lynn L. Elsenhans is CEO of Sunoco. Nevertheless, while the survey shows that women are making some progress, there has been little change in the number of women serving in management.

In the Government & Policy Department, Senior Editor Glenn Hess digs into the congressional debate over efforts to expand and make permanent federal regulations to protect the nation's chemical facilities from terrorist attack. Two major sticking points are the effort to mandate inherently safer technology (IST) as a mechanism to mitigate the potential danger posed by a plant and another to allow individuals the right to file lawsuits against chemical companies for violating the regulations.

Right now, it seems most likely that the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, the current program regulating chemical facilities, will be extended for a year. My suspicion is that some sort of compromise will be reached over IST. The truly bad idea of extending to individuals the right to sue over the security regulations should be dropped.

Another bad idea, in my view, is the agitation to remove the bisphenol A-based epoxy resin liners from food and beverage containers. This is one of those hysterical overreactions that give environmentalism a bad name.

The main problem, writes Senior Editor Melody Voith, "is the lack of a ready replacement for epoxy that meets the canned food industry's needs. Epoxy liners have been used in cans since the 1950s, helping preserve everything from peas to tomatoes to soda. Existing food-grade substitutes are not popular because they cannot be used as broadly, are more expensive, or both."

It probably makes sense to have removed BPA from baby bottles; infants are a particularly susceptible group and should receive an extra level of protection from substances that can harm them. But the science pretty strongly suggests that BPA at the levels humans are exposed to from epoxy liners in food cans is safe. Safer, probably, in a holistic sense than whatever substitute can be found.

Green chemistry is a good idea that's gone mainstream. Senior Correspondent Steve Ritter reports on the 13th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference held in late June. "Green chemistry has matured as a design framework and is now helping chemists and chemical engineers of all stripes to develop better chemical processes and products across-the-board," Ritter writes.

And did you know that there are probably 10 times as many bacterial cells in your body as there are human cells? Associate Editor Sarah Everts examines the proposition that humans are actually a "multispecies superorganism."

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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