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ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: Wed Nov 05 15:42:03 EST 2008

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Here is the latest American Chemical Society (ACS) News Service Weekly PressPac with news from ACS’ 36 peer-reviewed journals and Chemical & Engineering News.

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News Items in this Edition

New insights into thalidomide-birth defect episode

Scientists in Germany have discovered why the medication thalidomide appeared safe in animal tests before going on the market 50 years ago, only to cause perhaps the most extensive outbreak of drug-induced birth defects in medical history. Their study is scheduled for the December 1 edition of ACS’ Molecular Pharmaceutics, a bimonthly journal.

Jurgen Knobloch, Ulrich Ruther and colleagues note that more than 10,000 children were born with severe birth defects after drug regulators in Europe approved the medication for treating nausea and vomiting in pregnant women. The drug, never approved for that use in the United States, is available for certain conditions, including multiple myeloma and leprosy. The birth defects outbreak puzzled scientists because pre-marketing tests in lab mice and rats showed no sign of a birth defect risk.

The researchers point out that those animals proved to be resistant to thalidomide's adverse effects, and in the new study they describe discovery of the biochemical basis for that resistance. It involves a key difference between human embryonic cells and those of mice. They found in mice cells advanced antioxidant defenses compared to those in humans and other thalidomide-susceptible species. Therefore, thalidomide is not able to induce the generation of large quantities of damaging free radicals called superoxides in mouse embryonic cells as it does in human embryonic cells (where subsequent cell death is believed to be responsible for birth defects.) — JS

Chemical magic in the mouth

Scientists in Switzerland are reporting that bacteria in the human mouth play a role in creating the distinctive flavors of certain foods. They found that these bacteria actually produce food odors from odorless components of food, allowing people to fully savor fruits and vegetables. Their study is scheduled for the November 12 edition of the ACS bi-weekly Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

In the study, Christian Starkenmann and colleagues point out that some fruits and vegetables release characteristic odors only after being swallowed. While scientists have previously reported that volatile compounds produced from precursors found in these foods are responsible for this ‘retroaromatic’ effect, the details of this transformation were not understood.

To fill that knowledge gap, the scientists performed sensory tests on 30 trained panelists to evaluate the odor intensity of volatile compounds – known as thiols – that are released from odorless sulfur compounds found naturally in grapes, onions, and bell peppers. When given samples of the odorless compounds, it took participants 20 to 30 seconds to perceive the aroma of the thiols – and this perception persisted for three minutes. The researchers also determined that the odorless compounds are transformed into the thiols by anaerobic bacteria residing in the mouth – causing the characteristic ‘retroaromatic’ effect. “The mouth acts as a reactor, adding another dimension to odor perceptions,” they explain. However, the authors conclude, it is saliva’s ability to trap these free thiols that helps modulate the long-lasting flavors. — KSD

“Liquid mirror” advance may lead to better eye exams, improved telescopes

Scientists in Canada are reporting progress toward a new type of “liquid mirror” — mirrors made with highly reflective liquids — whose shape can be changed to provide superior optical properties over conventional solid mirrors. The advance could lead to improved instruments for diagnosing eye disease, more powerful telescopes, and other applications, the researchers say. Their research will be described in the November 25 issue of ACS’ Chemistry of Materials, a bi-weekly journal.

In the report, Anna Ritcey, Jean-Philippe Dery, and Ermanno Borra note that “liquid mirrors” are not new. Scientists have long recognized that these liquids could provide a low-cost, easy-to-use alternative to solid mirrors for a variety of optical applications while offering the potential for less image distortion. Researchers have recently developed liquid-mirror telescopes that use mercury as the reflective material. Mercury, however, is toxic and the shape of the surface can’t be deformed or adjusted.

The scientists describe development of a new type of deformable “liquid mirror” composed of magnetic iron particles, ethylene glycol (a component of automotive antifreeze), and a coating of silver nanoparticles. These materials form a highly reflective mirror whose shape can be changed by adjusting the voltage applied to electromagnets placed below the liquid, allowing the user to fine-tune the mirror’s optical properties. In lab studies, the new material showed better reflectivity and stability than current liquid-mirror materials, the scientists say. — MTS

A new way to remove unwanted heparin from blood

Scientists in Poland are reporting development of a potential new way to quickly remove the anticoagulant heparin from patients’ blood in order to avoid unwanted side effects that can happen with the current use of that blood thinner. Their new polymer material will be described in the December 8 issue of ACS’ Biomacromolecules, a monthly journal.

In the new study, Krzysztof Szczubialka and colleagues point out doctors often want to remove heparin from the blood of patients undergoing surgery or other procedures immediately after completing the procedure. Leaving the heparin alone could lead to unwanted bleeding. Doctors now eliminate heparin by giving patients protamine, a drug that stops heparin’s anticoagulant effects. However, they are seeking a better drug because protamine carries a risk of serious side effects.

The scientists describe development of a potential new approach that involves use of microscopic beads of a polymer made from modified chitosan, a material obtained from shellfish. In laboratory tests, the beads reduced concentrations of heparin to nearly zero within 10 minutes. — MTS

Terrorism crackdown threatens chemisty hobbyists

Laws and regulations intended to crack down on terrorists, illicit drug manufacture, and other criminal activities are stifling an elite cadre of individuals who pursue chemistry as a hobby and have a home chemistry lab, according to an article scheduled for the Nov. 10 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, ACS’ weekly newsmagazine.

In the article, C&EN Associate Editor Bethany Halford notes that having a lab in the basement, garage, or backyard shed was once a rite of passage for scientifically minded kids and a relatively common hobby for science curious-adults. Some of these labs have even produced significant contributions to chemistry, including vulcanized rubber and aniline dyes, the article notes.

Now, in an ongoing battle against bomb-makers and illegal methamphetamine labs, home-based chemistry is increasingly coming under attack. Thousands of people who want to pursue chemistry as a do-it-yourself hobby or home-school lesson must navigate through a maze of federal, state, and local laws that target hazardous substances — or run the risk of fines or laboratory shutdowns, the article notes. “Not all of us are mad bombers or drug makers and we would like to be able to practice our hobby in peace if there’s a reasonable way for us to figure out the guidelines,” says one authority on hobby chemists.

Journalists’ Resources

  • Press releases, chat room sessions, and more from ACS' 236th National Meeting

It's never too late to explore a treasure trove of news sources, background material and story ideas available from the ACS' latest National Meeting, which was held in Philadelphia from August 17-21, 2008. Reporters can view press releases, search an archive with abstracts of more than 9,000 scientific presentations and hundreds of non-technical summaries of those presentations, and access other resources at: www.eurekalert.org/acsmeet.php.

The ACS Office of Public Affairs also offers recorded video versions of its National Meeting "chat room" briefings and accompanying chat transcripts by going to http://www.ustream.tv/channel/acslive. To use this site, you must first register with Ustream.tv by going to http://ustream.tv/sign-up-step-1. It's free and only takes a minute or two to sign up. To view the archived chat room sessions, click the "Login" button at the top right of the Ustream window. Then, select "Past Clips." Please note that Ustream requires the latest version of Adobe Flash, which can be downloaded without charge at http://www.adobe.com/products/flashplayer.

  • ACS Press Releases

General science press releases on a variety of chemistry-related topics.

For Wired Readers

  • Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Don’t miss this special series of ACS podcasts on some of the 21st Century’s most daunting challenges, and how cutting-edge research in chemistry matters in the quest for solutions. This sweeping panorama of challenges includes topics such as providing a hungry, thirsty world with ample supplies of safe food and clean water; developing alternatives to petroleum to fuel the global economy; preserving the environment and assuring a sustainable future for our children; and improving human health. An ongoing saga of chemistry for life — chemistry that truly matters — Global Challenges debuts June 25 with new episodes through December. Subscribe at iTunes, or listen and access other resources at the ACS website www.acs.org/GlobalChallenges.

  • Bytesize Science, a podcast for young listeners

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The ACS Office of Communications is podcasting PressPac contents to make cutting-edge scientific discoveries from ACS journals available to a broad public audience at no charge.

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