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Biological Chemistry

A historic week

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
September 4, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 35

Last week, a hurricane of historic proportions devastated many cities on the Gulf Coast of the U.S.

Although it is too early to get a full picture of the destruction that Hurricane Harvey has caused, as C&EN went to press we already knew that the number of deaths has risen to at least 38.

The area is critical for the U.S. chemical industry. Most of the region’s chemical and petrochemical plants shuttered temporarily to prevent damage by the hurricane, but these prevention measures were not successful in every case. On page 4 we report that on Aug. 31, explosions occurred at a plant owned by Arkema, one of the world’s largest chemical companies.

Not allowing postdocs to take projects with them, or competing with them when they do, harms science.
Ben Barres, professor of neurobiology, Stanford University School of Medicine

The facility, which manufactures organic peroxides used in making plastics and other materials, had been inundated with water and left without power since Sunday. Without the constant cooling required to prevent unintended decomposition of those peroxides, Arkema warned explosions were imminent, but it simply didn’t know when. As a precaution, they evacuated the plant and worked with local authorities to do the same for the neighboring area.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the thousands of individuals affected by this natural disaster. Once the water subsides, the recovery process will start, and the authorities expect it to be long. C&EN will be covering how the chemical industry rebuilds after the damage, how and when teaching and research activities are resumed at local universities, and how environmental cleanup in the region progresses. But the hurricane has implications beyond the affected area. Prices of some chemicals are expected to go up. We have already seen gasoline prices increase because the flooding stopped operations at a quarter of U.S. refineries. There are fears that a supply shortage may ensue; Reuters estimated that “at least 4.4 million barrels per day (bpd) of refining capacity” is off-line. C&EN will bring you the latest.

In other, more positive news, we also learned last week that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the first gene-altering cancer treatment in the U.S. In what FDA itself described as a “historic action,” the agency approved Kymriah—a drug developed by Novartis that uses genetically modified immune cells from patients to attack their cancer in a the treatment for a form of childhood leukemia. About 3,100 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease each year. On the negative side, administering the drug will cost around $475,000. This is a high price tag for a drug, and it has reignited the debate about the cost of potentially life-saving treatments.

Finally, if you are looking for something to read, I’d like to recommend a piece in Nature by Ben A. Barres, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. In a poignant piece—he is dying of cancer—he addresses lab heads when he asks that junior researchers be allowed to take their projects with them when they start their own labs. He argues that “project porting” not only is crucial for the success of young researchers but also drives innovation and discovery. In fact, he goes one step further and states that “not allowing postdocs to take projects with them, or competing with them when they do, harms science.” I’m sure this theme will resonate with many reading this editorial, and we’d be interested to hear your thoughts and any stories or anecdotes you may have. As Barres asks: Who owns what when it comes to the PI-postdoc relationship?

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


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