Articles by: Chemjobber

Counterfeit drugs: an opportunity for innovative chemical thinking?

Can you tell the difference? Left is authentic sample. Right is fake.

A recent article [1] in “Trends in Pharmaceutical Sciences” illustrates the interesting problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, especially fake anti-malarials. In the long term, I suspect that as pharmaceutical prices trend upwards, folks at the margins will be looking for ways to cut costs. Doubtless that some will be taken in by the global trade in fake or substandard pharmaceuticals, possibly even in the US.

One village in Burma was definitely taken in [2]: a young man with malaria was treated with what was thought to be arteminisin, the natural product that is an effective means of treating the disease. After he died of malaria, experts discovered that the packages had fake authentication holograms and the tablets failed a colorimetric test. MS results indicated that the main ingredient was acetaminophen and HPLC indicated that the levels of arteminisin was only 20% of the claimed dosage.

The authors ([1], Newton et al.) argue for more support for governmental medicinal regulatory agencies in developing countries; they also push for more inspections of GMP facilities. While I think both of these strategies will bear long-term fruit, there is potential room for innovation from the chemistry front.

Presented with this problem (questionable organic starting materials), the typical university-equipped chemist would perform a number of tests (NMR, MS) to determine the identity of the unknown material. The articles I looked at also mentioned colorimetric tests and TLC, both relatively low-tech analytical chemistry techniques. I like TLC as a potential answer for part of this problem; you’d want something that didn’t rely on silica gel plates, a UV light or complicated stains. You’d want something that worked with paper chromatography and very common chemicals (H2SO4?)

This might be the first foray into a chemical version of “appropriate technology”, which attempts to improve the lives of people in developing countries using materials that are available and sustainable. What do you all think?


1. Newton, P.N., Green, M.D., Fernandex, F.M. “Impact of poor-quality medicines in the ‘developing’ world.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 2010, 31 (3), 99-101.

2. Newton P.N., McGready R., Fernandez F., Green M.D., Sunjio M., et al. “Manslaughter by fake artesunate in Asia—Will Africa be next?” PLos Med 2006, 3(6): e197.
By April 11, 2010 7 comments general chemistry

Scientific shopping

In the process of explaining the process of buying scientific equipment to a layperson, I was struck that I could not adequately explain Sigma-Aldrich’s role in the market.

If you take two extremes of retail shopping, there’s WalMart (broad selection, low prices, relatively few outlets) and there’s 7-11 (narrow selection, relatively high prices, lots of corner outlets). With 7-11, you presumably pay a little more for a little more convenience.

To the organic chemist, Aldrich is convenient (free shipping!), it’s typically high cost and the quality ranges for completely satisfactory to below average. The convenience and the high cost = 7-11; the extraordinarily broad selection of compounds, a little more WalMart-like. My experience with the customer service has been pretty good, actually.

So what is Aldrich? I think it’s more like a department store than anything (you can buy Aldrich brand glassware, not that I know a lot of people who do.) What do you all think? Do you have any favorite suppliers? (Seeing as how Acros is an advertiser, I have nothing but good to say about them.) What store do you equate with your favorite supplier?

By March 17, 2010 9 comments Uncategorized

Biology professor allegedly involved in shooting

Suspect in UAH shooting - credit Huntsville Times, Dave Dieter

News broke this afternoon that there was a shooting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Shelby Hall. It took me a while to find that this is (among other things) the home of UAH’s chemistry department. While CNN hasn’t filled in the details, the Huntsville Times already has reported that biology Professor Amy Bishop was taken into custody and her husband has been detained for the deaths of 3 faculty members and the wounding of 3 others.

While stunning and tragic, this would not have rated a post except for the alleged reason for the shooting: denial of tenure. According to the New York Times:

WAFF, the NBC affiliate in Huntsville, quoted university officials as saying the professor began shooting after learning at the faculty meeting that she was being denied tenure…

Dr. Bishop had told acquaintances recently that she was worried about getting tenure, said a business associate who met her at a business technology open house at the end of January and asked not to be named because of the close-knit nature of the science community in Huntsville. “She began to talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair,” the associate said, referring to a conversation in which she blamed specific colleagues for her problems.

Wow. Denial of tenure must be crushing for an assistant professor, especially since the process must seem protracted, random and unfair (at times). The really surprising detail is that (allegedly) she brought a gun; that’s an indication of a willingness to use violence and a certain level of forethought as to the potential outcome of the meeting. (CORRECTED: see update below.) Academic science is high pressure indeed.

My (our) thoughts are with the families of the victims.

UPDATE: From the AP:

University spokesman Ray Garner said Saturday that the professor, Amy Bishop, had been informed months ago that she would not be granted tenure. He said the faculty meeting where she is accused of gunning down colleagues was not called to discuss tenure.

By February 13, 2010 23 comments science news

Dissolution is the solution to pollution?

The machine that eats human bodies

The machine that eats human bodies

Want a solution to cremation pollution? In the 9th annual “Year in Ideas” issue, the New York Times Sunday Magazine covers a new Scottish company that wants people to “resomate” human remains as opposed to traditional cremation.

The company’s web site mentions that resomation “uses less energy than cremation and produces significantly less CO2 and avoids putting mercury and other harmful contaminants into the atmosphere.”

How does this work? According to the NYT: “The corpse is placed in a pressurized chamber. The vessel is then filled with water and potassium hydroxide, creating a highly alkaline solution, and heated to 330 degrees. After about three hours, all that’s left are a soft, white calcium phosphate from bone and teeth and a light brown primordial soup of amino acids and peptides.”

Huh. Even though it’s kinda grody, I have to say that it makes a lot of sense. Will alkaline hydrolysis be your body’s ultimate fate?

By December 13, 2009 10 comments Uncategorized