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ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: Wed Jul 25 16:42:03 EDT 2007

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News Items in this Edition

Toward An Alternative to Stem Cells for Treating Chronic Brain Diseases

With ethical issues concerning use of discarded embryos and technical problems hindering development of stem cell therapies, scientists in Korea are reporting the first successful use of a drug-like molecule to transform human muscle cells into nerve cells. Their report, scheduled for the August 8 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a weekly journal, states that the advance could lead to new treatments for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.

In the study, Injae Shin and colleagues point out that stem cell research shows promise for repairing or replacing damaged nerve cells to treat such diseases. However, many barriers hinder efforts to move those therapies from lab to clinic. The use of “small molecules” — compounds that include most drugs — to generate new nerve cells from easily available cells or tissues would provide a more convenient and attractive approach to stem cell therapies, the new study notes.

The researchers exposed immature mouse muscle cells (myoblasts) growing in laboratory cell cultures to neurodazine, a synthetic small molecule. After one week, 40-50 percent of the myoblasts were transformed into cells that resembled both the structure and function of nerve cells, including expression of neuron-specific proteins. Additional studies showed a similar transformation in a group of human skeletal muscle cells that were exposed to the same chemical for several days, they add.

“In conclusion, we have developed the first small molecule that can induce neurogenesis of non-pluripotent myoblasts and the cells derived from mature, human skeletal muscle,” the report states. “These studies build upon recent research illustrating the value of chemical approaches for providing tools that differentiate lineage-committed cells into other cell types.”

Oil Spill Clean-Up Agents Threaten Coral Reefs

In a setback for efforts to protect endangered coral reefs from oil spills, researchers in Israel report that oil dispersants — the best tool for treating oil spills in tropical areas —are significantly more toxic to coral than the oil they are used to clean up. Their study, which urges caution in the use of these materials, is scheduled for the August 1 issue of ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a semi-monthly journal.

Called the ‘rainforests of the sea,’ coral reefs are an endangered ecosystem and are disappearing at an alarming rate due to numerous threats, including over-fishing, global warming and pollution, particularly oil spills. Besides hosting a rich diversity of marine organisms, these habitats are also potential sources of life-saving medicines and food for humans. Scientists looking for better ways to protect this important habitat have recently focused on the environmental impact of oil dispersants, detergents used break down oil spills into smaller, less harmful droplets.

In the new report, Shai Shafir and colleagues evaluated the effects of both crude oil and six commercial oil dispersants under laboratory conditions on the growth and survival of two important species of reef corals. The dispersants and dispersed oil droplets were significantly more toxic to the coral than the crude oil itself, the scientists report. The dispersants caused “significant harm,” including rapid, widespread death and delay in growth rates, to the coral colonies tested even at doses recommended by the manufacturers, they add.

“Decision-making authorities should carefully consider these results when evaluating possible use of oil dispersants as a mitigation tool against oil pollution near coral reef areas,” the report said.

First Potential Biomarker for Human Exposure to Diesel Exhaust

Scientists in Japan and the United States are reporting development of the first test to detect a potential biomarker for human exposure to diesel exhaust, a major source of environmental pollution that is classified as a probable human carcinogen.

In an article scheduled for the current (July 16) issue of ACS’s Chemical Research in Toxicology, a monthly journal, Akira Toriba and colleagues say the new method should be useful for monitoring human exposure to diesel exhaust and in studies of potential cancer risks associated with that exposure. Past research, the report notes, had predicted that certain “metabolites” — compounds formed in the bodies of people exposed to diesel exhaust — should appear in the urine. One of those compounds is known by the acronym 1-NP and its metabolites are OHNAAPs and OHNPs.

“This is the first study to demonstrate that the 1-NP metabolites, OHNAAPs and OHNPs, are excreted in the urine of human subjects exposed to environmental levels of 1-NP,” the report explains. “These findings suggest that urinary 1-NP metabolites may be used as a representative biomarker for assessing exposure to diesel exhaust.”

Fishing for an Answer: Wild or Farmed?

You pass up the farm-raised sea bass in the supermarket fish department, and pay a premium for its wild cousin. Are you getting your money’s worth, or was that “wild” fish actually raised on a fish farm and accidentally or intentionally mislabeled? Scientists in the United Kingdom are reporting development of a method to answer that question.

J. Gordon Bell and colleagues point out that European Union legislation requires that retailers and consumers have information on the geographical origin and production method for seafood. “Due to the global nature of production, similar fish products can be sourced from variable points of origin, and this can lead to instances of mislabeling, both intentional and fraudulent,” their report states. It is scheduled for the current (July 25) issue of ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a biweekly publication. Other considerations, aside from price, make it important to distinguish between wild and farmed fish, the report notes.

The new test is based on differences in composition of the fatty components found in farmed and wild fish. The differences originate because farmed fish usually get a diet containing lower levels of marine-derived ingredients. With tests done on 10 wild and 10 farmed sea bass, the researchers cite the need to verify the findings on larger samples of different fish.

Well-Intended Research in the Wrong Hands Can Become a Weapon of Terror

In a post 9-11 world where laboratory-made viruses and other legitimate scientific discoveries could become terrorists’ weapons, scientists are stepping-up efforts to help ensure that well-intended research is not used for sinister purposes, according to an article scheduled for the July 30 issue of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), ACS’ weekly newsmagazine.

C&EN managing editor Ivan Amato wrote the compelling feature after interviews with scientists from academia, government, and industry who are working to address growing concerns about misuse of legitimate scientific research. “Chemists have not worried enough about the consequences of the molecules that they make,” states Roald Hoffmann, who shared the 1981 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Hoffmann has chosen to address this issue in an usual way—theater. His new play, Should’ve, focuses on the moral and political fallout from a synthetic toxin that falls into the hands of terrorists. Hoffmann calls on scientists to “confront the reality that well-intentioned research that holds promise to cure disease, clean water and otherwise improve the conditions of life also can be commandeered for sinister purposes.”

Other experts in the article discuss the possibility of using oversight boards to monitor research on potentially dangerous research projects; introducing ethical discussions into the classroom to sensitize undergraduate and graduate students to the possible misuse of scientific research, even their own; and the need for scientists to adapt a new, more vigilant and intentional way of thinking about the implications of their research.

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.
  • Sustainability Pledge from World’s Top Chemical Societies
    Presidents of six leading chemical societies, meeting in Paris, have pledged to cooperate in promoting sustainable development, responsible use of natural resources, and other efforts in which scientists protect and maintain the earth’s environment, resources, and inhabitants. The statement came from the American Chemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Chemical Society of Japan, the German Chemical Society, the French Chemical Society and the Dutch Chemical Society, which have a combined membership of nearly 300,000.
  • 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.

The American Chemical Society — the world’s largest scientific society — is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.