The drugs don’t work 

Third quarter results from the pharmaceutical industry were marred by simultaneous admissions that promising new treatments had been withdrawn and delayed.  

British giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca, which both reported a boost in third quarter sales, have been forced to abandon new treatments in the latter stages of their development. 

AstraZeneca’s new stroke treatment Cerovive was withdrawn at the end of phase III clinical trials. The announcement sparked an immediate drop in the company’s stock of almost eight per cent, and prompted reports that it will now need to address a depleted drug pipeline by investing in new drug companies.  

GSK delivered a double blow to investors by announcing that the launch of its potential blockbuster cancer vaccine, Ceravix, would face a three month delay, and that it would be freezing trials of a new diabetes drug, Redona.  

US giants also shared their woes. Merck’s 34 per cent decline in third quarter profit was attributed to cheaper copies of its best selling product, Zocor, an anticholesterol pill. The company recently reported disappointing results from clinical trials of a new obesity drug MK-0557 (see Chemistry World  October 2006, p31). 

Meanwhile Pfizer announced that their potential cholesterol blockbuster would be delayed until 2011 as the US Food and Drug Administration requested further testing of the drug’s safety. 

Robert Temple, director of the centre for drug evaluation at the FDA, told Chemistry World  that pharmaceutical companies are concerned about what he referred to as ’translation’. ’Companies are telling us that around half of the drugs that go into phase three never make it out of phase three,’ he said. ’We need to look into this issue of what might be going on in phase two which might be causing this. One explanation could be that there is more interest in producing new drugs rather than follow-on molecules [such as] beta blockers or anti-inflammatories.’  

US governors combine carbon-trading initiatives 

In a joint move that has sidestepped the Bush Administration, the governors of New York and California have agreed to combine their respective climate change-combating initiatives. California’s future greenhouse gas trading system will be linked to the north-eastern and mid-Atlantic states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). 

RGGI is an emission cap and trade scheme whereby power plants in participating states will be required to cap emissions near to current levels by 2009 and then reduce them by 10% over four years. Businesses will receive credits for emission cuts below the cap, which they may sell to other plants.  

The governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has now signed an executive order for the development of a CO2 cap and trade scheme compatible with RGGI.  

The size of the resulting trading program could rival that of the EU’s emissions trading scheme, according to a report in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.  

Schwarzenegger has already signed an agreement with the UK to share best practices on emissions trading and explore the potential to link carbon markets across the Atlantic. The governor expressed hopes that this venture will persuade other countries, including the US federal government, to join the endeavour. 

China’s offshore oil giant buys chemical company 

China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the country’s third largest offshore oil company, has acquired China National Chemical Construction Corporation (CNCCC). Both companies are central state-owned enterprises (SOEs). 

CNOOC, which previously focused on oil and natural gas exploration and production, now plans to expand into oil refining, petrochemicals and international trade. This marks further growth of the country’s international markets. 

The deal adds to a growing list of SOE mergers. Since April 2003, when the Chinese government set up the state-owned assets supervision and administration commission (SASAC), the number of SOEs has decreased from 198 to 165. 

According to reports, the commission plan to continue consolidation of the number of SOEs, with the aim of improving efficiency of Chinese industry. 

New Shell complex in Singapore 

Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell has announced that it will open a new petrochemicals complex on Bukom island, south-west of Singapore.  

Reports described the project as a multi-billion dollar facility and Shell’s largest investment in Singapore to date. 

The complex will start production in 2009. It will contain an ethylene cracker and the world’s largest mono-ethylene glycol production plant to feed polyester and plastics manufacturers. 

Merck invests in RNAi

Following recognition of its potential by the Nobel committee this year, US pharmaceutical giant Merck are investing in RNA interference (RNAi) by acquiring Sirna Therapeutics, a US biotech firm specialising in drug development using RNAi. 

The agreed price for the deal is $1.1 billion (£0.58 billion). 

While the technology has yet to be proven in drug development, this acquisition has stirred reports that big pharma are starting to look into its potential.  

Medicines in the rainforest 

British drug discovery company e-therapeutics have formed a partnership with Brazilian company Grupo TCI. The companies have joined forces to seek new medicines in the South American rainforest.  

Responding to a dwindling worldwide drug pipeline, the deal will establish a research facility close to the Amazonian and Atlantic rainforests to start testing substances derived from the ecosystems’ various species of plants.

Nanomedicine to restore sight

The University of California (UCLA), Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), US, have jointly created a nanomedicine development centre, thanks to a $6 million (£3.14 million) grant from the US National Institute of Health.  

A major focus of the UC Berkeley-LBNL centre will be the development of photoswitches, proteins that can be ’switched’ on and off using light. 

Researchers at the centre have demonstrated the effectiveness of these optical switches in restoring light sensitivity in cultured cells and in animal models. They now aim to progress to clinical trials on patients with macular degeneration, a condition causing rod and cone cells in the retina to lose light sensitivity, and a leading cause of blindness in people over fifty. 

A large scale nanomedicine initiative by the NIH has funded seven other similar centres across the US. The Berkeley centre completes the formation of their national network of Nanomedicine Development Centres (NDCs).

World’s first biomethanol plant

A consortium of Dutch and Belgian investors has announced plans to transform a methanol plant in the Netherlands into the world’s first biomethanol plant.  

The investors, Biomethanol Chemie Holding, bought the plant in Delfzijl in the north-east of the Netherlands from chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers Akzo Nobel, DSM and Dynea. The plant was decommissioned a few months previously. 

According to reports, the Delfzijl plant will produce 1 billion litres of green petrol per year. This would be a 2 per cent contribution to the European Union target that, by 2010, 5.75 per cent of Europe’s 50 million-tonne annual petrol consumption should come from biofuels. 

UK’s largest semiconductor lab

The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) has helped to fund a ?10 million centre for research into semi-conductors and nano-magnetics.  

The cleanroom laboratory, based at the University of Sheffield, UK, will conduct research into optical communication devices, magnetic storage media and solar cells.  

The centre will also house the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) National Centre for III-V Technologies, a 25-year old institution which is currently the main provider of III-V semiconductor materials for the UK academic community. 

Dow invests in Thai plant 

US chemical giant Dow is to go ahead with plans to build a $1.1 billion (£0.58 billion) liquid-feedstock-based ethylene cracker in Rayong, Thailand, in cooperation with Thai company Siam Cement. 

The plant is expected to start production in 2010. Dow is also considering building a propylene oxide plant downstream from the unit.  

The announcement of this new international investment follows disappointing third quarter results. The company reported a 36 per cent fall in third quarter profits, which were attributed to increased energy and raw material prices.