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ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: Wed Aug 15 16:42:03 EDT 2007

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This issue of the American Chemical Society (ACS) News Service Weekly Press Package (PressPac) is a special edition with selections from scientific presentations scheduled for the ACS' 234th national meeting in Boston. Our regular coverage of reports from ACS' 36 major peer-reviewed journals and Chemical & Engineering News will resume with the Aug. 29, 2007 edition.

Theme Topic: Biotechnology of Health and Wellness

Biotechnology of health and wellness is the featured theme of the 234th national meeting. In a program organized by ACS President Catherine T. ("Katie") Hunt, representatives from academia, government and industry will discuss a wide range of topics within this theme, including the challenges and opportunities of commercializing nanotechnology, functional foods, and obesity. To see ACS President Katie Hunt's unembargoed comments on the meeting and details of the program, go to http://www.acspresident.org.

News Items in this Edition

Nanotech materials, start-ups highlighted at ACS symposium Aug. 19 in Boston

Your annual physical examination of the future may include a blood "barcode" scan, which instantly provides the doctor with information to diagnose a wide-range of diseases. New generations of novel polymers will be available to replace damaged blood vessels. And in a security-minded world outside, tiny but ultra-sensitive sensors will monitor the environment for bioterrorism agents.

These and other potentially revolutionary research developments of the future will be on the agenda Aug. 19 when five renowned chemists and inventors gather to describe the challenges and opportunities for commercializing new technologies. The elite panel will be part of a special Presidential symposium, "Material Innovations: from Nanotech to Biotech and Beyond," scheduled for the 234th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

The speakers include Charles Lieber and George Whitesides, of Harvard University; David Tirrell, of the California Institute of Technology; and Chad Mirkin, of Northwestern University.

"These distinguished researchers have pioneered the development of cutting-edge technologies that promise to improve human health and productivity in the future," says ACS President Catherine T. Hunt, who will preside at the symposium and moderate a panel discussion afterward. The symposium is part of the overall national meeting theme of Biotechnology for Health and Wellness.

"They will share their perspective of taking a fundamental concept in materials and biological science and bringing that concept forward through research, and ultimately achieving commercialization of a new product," says Hunt. Many of the speakers have started their own companies or are on the boards of multiple start-up companies, she notes.

Computers help chemists fight emerging infections

Computer analysis of existing drugs may be key to fighting new infectious agents and antibiotic-resistant pathogens like deadly tuberculosis strains and staph 'superbugs,' according to researchers in Canada. The use of such "emergency discovery" technology could save time, money and lives during a sudden outbreak or a bioterrorism attack, the scientists said.

Drug "repurposing" or "reprofiling" is not new: Pharmaceutical companies have been seeking new uses of old drugs to extend patent protections and whenever new, off-label uses of the drugs are found. But reprofiling to deliberately develop emergency drugs is a new concept, made possible by advances in chemoinformatics, a new field that merges chemistry with computer science, according to Artem Cherkasov and colleagues.

"In the case of new infectious threats, there might be no time to develop a completely new drug 'from the ground up,' as the corresponding toxicological studies and regulatory investigations will take years to complete properly," Cherkasov said. "Finding an already existing, well-studied therapeutic agent that will kill an emerging bug might provide a rapid, 'first line of defense' response option."

Common virus may contribute to obesity in some people

A common virus may be a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic sweeping through the United States and other countries, according to a new study by scientists in Louisiana. In laboratory experiments they showed that infection with human adenovirus-36 (Ad-36), long recognized as a cause of respiratory and eye infections in humans, transforms adult stem cells obtained from fat tissue into fat cells, whereas stem cells not exposed to the virus were unchanged, according to Magdalena Pasarica and colleagues.

The scientists also reported identification of a specific gene in the virus that appears to be involved in this obesity-promoting effect. The findings could lead to a vaccine or antiviral medication to help fight viral obesity in the future, the scientists said.

"We're not saying that a virus is the only cause of obesity, but this study provides stronger evidence that some obesity cases may involve viral infections," Pasarica stated.

Revealing estrogen's secret role in obesity

New research on the effects of the female sex hormone estrogen in the brain lend credence to what many women have suspected about the hormonal changes that accompany aging: Menopause can make you fat.

Scientists long have sought to understand how changes in hormones during menopause could account for the increase in appetite and accompanying weight gain that often occurs among aging women. In a series of animal experiments, Deborah J. Clegg and colleagues showed how estrogen receptors located in the hypothalamus serve as a master switch to control food intake, energy expenditure and body fat distribution. When these receptors are destroyed, the animals immediately begin to eat more food, burn less energy and pack on pounds.

This research seems to support a link between estrogen and regulation of obesity, especially the dangerous accumulation of abdominal fat linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, the researchers said. The findings may also help scientists develop more targeted hormone replacement therapies, capable of stimulating estrogen receptors in one part of the brain or body while dampening it in the next, they added.

Detergents, eye rinses, and other products with an on/off switch

Researchers in Australia have developed a "switchable" detergent with a wide range of potential applications — from a laundry detergent that hardly needs a rinse cycle to a non-irritating eye rinse to increasing the amount of oil that companies can extract from a well. The unusual product is a biological detergent or surfactant, called a Pepfactant® because it is made from peptides, the building blocks of proteins.

"One of the possible applications that we are aware of is a surfactant that would switch between the wash cycle and rinse cycle during clothes washing, which would mean you could remove visible suds without having to use as large a quantity of water," said researcher Annette Dexter.

The unique aspect of the Pepfactant® is that it can be "switched on" or "switched off" depending on its intended application. For example, in laundry detergents there is a built-in pH change that occurs between the wash and rinse cycles. Pepfactants® that are designed to respond to that pH change could be added to the detergent to reduce the rinse time, Dexter noted.

Helping the carbon nanotube industry avoid mega-mistakes of the past

A new analysis of by-products discharged to the environment during production of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) — expected to become the basis of multibillion-dollar industries in the 21st Century — has identified cancer-causing compounds, air pollutants, and other substances of concern, researchers reported.

DesirÉe L. Plata and colleagues described their work as "totally new," noting that past analyses of the environmental impact of the emerging nanomaterials industry have been based on the toxicity of ingredients used in the recipes, rather than the actual pollutants formed during CNT manufacture. While expressing concern about the possible health and environmental effects of nanotechnology by-products, Plata said the new data may be crucial as the nanotechnology industry seeks to avoid the kind of unanticipated health and environmental problems that have accompanied emergence of other new technology.

Researchers said, for instance, that they foresee developing, in collaboration with the CNT industry, "green chemical" reactions and filtration systems to substitute for those with potentially hazardous byproducts and other ways of manufacturing carbon nanotubes that minimize potentially adverse impacts.

"Without this work, the environmental and health impacts of the carbon nanotube industry could be severe and costly to repair," Plata said. "We would like to help it develop in an environmentally sustainable fashion."

Acrylamide not linked to breast cancer in U.S. women, study finds

Foods that contain acrylamide are unlikely to cause breast cancer in women, according to preliminary results of a new study involving 100,000 U.S. women. The finding is the largest epidemiological study to date exploring the possible link between acrylamide and cancer in humans, say Lorelei Mucci and colleagues.

"At levels consumed in the diet, it appears unlikely that acrylamide in foods is related to breast cancer risk," says Mucci. In prior work, her research group also examined dietary acrylamide and risk of cancer of the colon, rectum, bladder and kidney, and similarly found no association. "Although we do not rule out that very high levels of acrylamide could cause cancer, it appears that at the levels found in the diet, it is unlikely," she said.

Acrylamide has been detected in many widely-consumed foods, ranging from French fries to coffee. The highest levels are in fried and baked products such as potato chips and other snack foods. Although classified as a probable human carcinogen on the basis of animal studies, there is currently no consensus on dietary acrylamide's risks to human health. With food safety authorities in Europe taking steps to curb acrylamide, controversy has arisen over whether similar action should be taken in the U. S.

Cranberries may improve chemotherapy for ovarian cancer

Compounds in cranberries may help improve the effectiveness of platinum drugs that are used in chemotherapy to fight ovarian cancer, researchers have found in a laboratory study. The scientists demonstrated in cell culture studies that human ovarian cancer cells resistant to platinum drugs became up to six times more sensitized to the drugs after exposure to the cranberry compounds in comparison to cells that were not exposed to the compounds, which were obtained from juice extracts.

Although preliminary, the findings have the potential to save lives and reduce the harmful side effects associated with using high doses of platinum drugs for the treatment of ovarian cancer, the researchers say, adding that human studies are still needed. The new study adds to a growing number of potential health benefits linked to cranberries.

"For the first time, we have shown in our in vitro studies that cranberry extracts can sensitize resistant human ovarian cancer cell lines," say Ajay P. Singh, Nicholi Vorsa, and colleagues. "This has opened up exciting possibilities for therapeutic intervention associated with platinum therapy."

Source of coffee's bitterness identified; could lead to better tasting brew

Bitter taste can ruin a cup of coffee. Now, chemists in Germany and the United States say they have identified the chemicals largely responsible for java's bitterness, a finding that could one day lead to a better tasting brew.

Research by others over the past few years has identified an estimated 25 to 30 compounds that could contribute to the perceived bitterness of coffee. But the main cause of coffee bitterness has been largely unexplored until now, said Thomas Hofmann and colleagues.

"Everybody thinks that caffeine is the main bitter compound in coffee, but that's definitely not the case," Hoffmann said. Only about 15 percent of java's perceived bitterness is due to caffeine, he added, noting that caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee both have similar bitterness qualities.

The researchers found that coffee bitterness is due to two main classes of compounds: chlorogenic acid lactones and phenylindanes, both of which are antioxidants found in roasted coffee beans. The compounds are not present in green (raw) beans, they noted.

Sewage chemicals reveal evidence of illegal drug use

Public health officials may soon be able to flush out more accurate estimates on illegal drug use in communities across the country thanks to a new screening test. But the test doesn't screen people directly: It seeks out evidence of illicit drug abuse in drug residues and metabolites excreted in urine and flushed toward municipal sewage treatment plants.

The approach could provide a fast, reliable and inexpensive way to track trends in drug use at the local, regional or state levels while preserving the anonymity of individuals, Jennifer Field and colleagues said.

Past estimates of illicit drug abuse in a community were based largely on surveys in which children and adults were asked about their use of illegal drugs. Researchers knew that some were untruthful, with individuals reluctant to admit breaking the law.

Preliminary tests conducted in 10 U.S. cities show the method can simultaneously quantify methamphetamine and metabolites of cocaine and marijuana and legal drugs such as methadone, oxycodone, and ephedrine, the researchers said.

"Because our method can provide data in real time, we anticipate it might be used to help law officials undertaking surveillance to make intervention or prevention decisions or to decide where to allocate resources," the scientists stated.

“Met inhibitors" showing promise as a new weapon in war on cancer

With hopes fading for development of a "magic bullet" to knock out cancer — a single medicine targeted to the individual genetics of each patient — researchers are increasingly looking toward cocktails of medication that attack different vulnerabilities in a tumor. A new class of potent tumor-blocking drugs, called 'Met inhibitors,' are emerging as likely staple ingredients of those cancer-fighting cocktails of the future, according to an article scheduled for the Aug. 20 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, ACS' weekly newsmagazine.

In the article, C&EN associate editor Lisa Jarvis cites a growing body of research suggesting that a dangerous "Met" (short for metastatic) protein keeps cancer cells alive and helps the disease spread from the original tumor to distant parts of the body. Researchers have recently developed several Met inhibitors and early evidence from a handful of clinical trials suggests that these agents can stabilize, and in some cases, shrink tumors. They may even be effective in cases where cancer is resistant to common treatments, according to the article.

"Given Met's vast medical and commercial potential, the drug industry is finally starting to take notice," the article notes. These inhibitors are particularly promising given the wide range of cancers they may address. Researchers are moving ahead in the critical work of identifying patients who would best respond to the drugs in the hope of bringing Met inhibitors to market in the years ahead, the article states.

For Wired Readers

  • Science Elements: New ACS Podcast
    The ACS Office of Communications is podcasting PressPac contents in order to make cutting-edge scientific discoveries from ACS journals available to a broad public audience at no charge. Science Elements includes selected content from ACS’s prestigious suite of 35 peer-reviewed scientific journals and Chemical & Engineering News, ACS’s weekly news magazine. Those journals, published by the world’s largest scientific society, contain about 30,000 scientific reports from scientists around the world each year. The reports include discoveries in medicine, health, nutrition, energy, the environment and other fields that span science’s horizons from astronomy to zoology. Podcaster for Science Elements is Steve Showalter, Ph.D., a chemist at the U. S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and ACS member.
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Journalists’ Resources

  • General Chemistry Glossary
    The General Chemistry Glossary can be found here.
  • New ACS Annual Report
    The 2006 ACS annual report, A New Vision at Work, can be a valuable resource for journalists trying to keep pace with chemistry and the multiple fields of science that involve chemistry. The report features a series of commentaries by chemists, including Nobel Laureate Robert H. Grubbs, on chemistry’s role in working toward better medications, more nutritious food, sources of renewable energy, and other innovations. The newly published report is currently available for reading and downloading.

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