Chemical blasts

A spate of accidents in chemical plants around the world in the last two months - including in the US and Japan - has caused the deaths of 20 plant employees, and left dozens more injured.  

On 19 December a blast and fire in the US killed four workers and injured a dozen people at Jacksonville, Florida-based chemical company T2 Laboratories, which produces petrol additive methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl. The explosion was caused by a runaway chemical reaction when organic materials were heated with metallic sodium, said the US Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board. The resulting uncontrolled high pressures and temperatures blew apart the vessel’s three-inch-thick steel walls. Some parts were recovered a quarter of a mile away from the site. 

Also in the US, another worker has died at BP’s now infamous Texas City refinery, killed on 15 January during the restart of the plant’s Ultracracker unit. The man, who died of head injuries when a metal lid designed to contain 175psi pressure blew off, is the third to die at the plant since the 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers. 

Meanwhile, a blaze in Japan at Mitsubishi Chemical’s Kamashima facility on 21 December 2007 killed four operators. The fire broke out in the cracking furnace area of the company’s Number 2 ethylene plant, shutting down ethylene and benzene production. 

And in China, three accidents in eight days caused 15 fatalities. Four died and four more were injured on 7 January while dismantling oil tanks at the Jin’an Technology and Trade chemical plant in Shanxi Province - through the workers’ own ’improper actions’, said officials. 

Less than a week later, an explosion and fire at a sulfuric acid plant in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, left seven people dead and 33 injured. The 13 January fire was caused when sulfur powder exploded outside a storage facility. Investigations into the exact cause of the incident are ongoing - as is the probe into a 15 January blast in a dimethyl silicone factory in Zhejiang Province, which killed four people.  

Low manufacturing costs, and emerging markets, are drawing many western chemical companies to China - a difficult country to operate in given its rapid growth, said Phil Scott, risk policy advisor at the Chemical Industries Association, UK. ’But our members are more aware than ever of the bad publicity, as well as the social and legal aspects, of accidents - wherever in the world they happen - and we’d expect they would apply the same safety standards in China as they do in the UK.’ 

James Mitchell Crow

Inhaled insulin abandoned 

Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk has cancelled development of its inhaled insulin system AERx - currently in late-stage clinical trials - just three months after Pfizer withdrew Exubera, its equivalent product, due to poor sales. Novo and Pfizer’s decisions will focus more attention on Eli Lilly, soon to launch its own inhaled insulin product, AIR. 

Detroit Motorshow goes green 

Toyota, the world’s biggest car maker, is expanding its lithium battery joint venture with Panasonic, and says it will have a plug-in, lithium battery-equipped, hybrid vehicle on sale by 2010. Meanwhile, US car firm General Motors is investing in a start-up biofuels company that claims it can produce ethanol for under half the current wholesale price. Coskata says it can make ethanol from virtually any carbon-based feedstock, including agricultural and municipal waste, by first converting it to syngas, which micro-organisms then turn into ethanol. 

BASF Europe

BASF has completed its conversion into a European Company (SE - Societas Europaea), becoming the first chemical company to do so. The conversion means BASF will operate under the same laws across all 27 EU member states, meaning lower legal and administration costs, plus easier cross-border mergers with other companies in Europe. 

Carbon trading

The UK Carbon Trust has said that certain parts of the chemical industry are particularly exposed to the impact of the EU emissions trading scheme. The group highlighted fertilisers and ammonia, and inorganic basic chemicals, as sectors that should receive a compensating rate of free credit allocation, since both are highly electricity-intensive. 

Serious Fraud inquiry

UK-based pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, plus US firm Eli Lilly, have been ordered to release confidential documents to the UK Serious Fraud Office as part of ongoing investigations into alleged bribes paid to Saddam Hussein’s regime. The inquiry follows a 2005 UN report listing over 2000 companies that possibly paid bribes to secure Iraqi contracts under the UN’s oil-for-food programme. 

Authorised generics

US drug company Merck will sell an authorised generic of its osteoporosis blockbuster Fosamax, which loses patent protection on 6 February 2008. The drug, to be made by an as-yet unnamed generics manufacturer, will go on sale against generics made by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Barr Pharmaceuticals. Teva and Barr had been given six month’s exclusive rights to sell generic Fosamax, as the first companies to file for FDA approval - but will now also face competition from Merck. Such authorised-generic deals are being investigated by the US Federal Trade Commission. 

New drugs scarcer

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved only 19 new drugs in 2007, the fewest since 1983. Explanations for the recent slump ranged from the FDA’s increasing strictness, to drug companies focusing on new uses for already-approved products; or tackling more complex disease causes, rather than simply preventing common symptoms. 

Jatropha excites fuel-testers

German car-maker Daimler, US agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland and Bayer CropScience are teaming up to explore the tropical plant jatropha as a biodiesel fuel. One attraction is that the hardy plant can be grown on barren land. 

Daimler has already investigated its biodiesel potential; the partners now hope to develop production and quality standards for jatropha-based fuel. 

More promise for resveratrol 

US-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals said that an early-stage study suggests its resveratrol-based formulation helped lower blood sugar levels in diabetics. It is the first study to show beneficial effects in humans, rather than mice or rats. The company has previously reported a series of promising compounds for treating diabetes (Chemistry World, January 2008, p31). 

Genzyme in cholesterol pact

US biotech company Genzyme has strengthened its drug pipeline by spending $325 million to secure partial rights to experimental cholesterol-lowering drug, mipomersen, from Isis Pharmaceuticals. If Isis gets FDA approval, the drug could be on the market by 2011. 

DuPont Kevlar expansion 

DuPont is to invest $500 million (?252 million) at its Cooper River, South Carolina site to expand its Kevlar production capacity by 25 per cent. The company will also invest $50 million in its Kevlar polymer production plant in Virginia. The combined investment will be the largest production capacity increase since the fibre hit the market in 1965. As well as bullet- and stab-proof clothing, the strong but lightweight fibre’s use is growing in applications: from tyres and reinforced tubing to honeycomb structures for next-generation aircraft. 

Meningitis vaccine competition

Swiss drug company Novartis said Phase II trials showed its Menveo meningitis vaccine generated immune responses in infants. The vaccine, which should be filed for EU and US regulatory approval this year, competes with Menactra, a meningitis vaccine for teenagers and adults developed by Sanofi-aventis; while GSK is also developing a meningitis vaccine, currently in Phase II trials. 

Vytorin no better than cheap statins

US pharmaceutical firms Merck and Schering-Plough have said that trials show joint venture cholesterol-lowering drug Vytorin doesn’t slow heart disease any better than cheaper generics. The long-awaited results were from a trial comparing simple statins with Vytorin, a combination of a statin with a drug that blocks LDL (’bad cholesterol’) from being taken up in the gut. While generic statins can cost less than $1 (?0.51) per pill, Vytorin costs around $3. 

Positive start for universal flu trials

Acambis has announced positive preliminary results following the Phase I trials of its universal flu vaccine, designed to target a region of the virus common to all influenza ’A’ strains, including all pandemic strains and H5N1. Acambis said the vaccine successfully generated an immune response, and was well-tolerated. The company is now looking to develop the drug with a large pharmaceutical partner. 

Takeda’s Actos replacement

Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceutical is seeking FDA approval for alogliptin, a diabetes drug to replace Actos - the world’s top-selling diabetes medicine, due to lose patent protection in 2011. Actos is in the same drug class as GSK’s Avandia, recently linked with higher risk of heart attack. 

Solar competition 

US aerospace and industrial products maker Hamilton Sundstrand, and private equity firm US Renewables, have announced they will commercialise a new type of solar power plant. The facility uses the sun to heat a molten mixture of sodium and potassium nitrate salts, which retains the heat until needed, when it is used to generate steam to power a turbine. The technology was first demonstrated in the 1980s; now high energy prices make the technology commercially viable, the companies believe. 

Amgen bone drug boost

Denosumab, Amgen’s bone density improvement drug, successfully increased bone density in Phase III trials of patients taking hormone blockers to treat breast cancer. Loss of bone density is a side-effect of cancer treatments involving aromatase inhibitors - but the effect was reversed in patients who received a denosumab injection every six months during treatment. Analysts have predicted that the drug, a monoclonal antibody, could make up to $2 billion in annual sales. 

Water-based anti-graffiti coating

Bayer has developed a chemical- and graffiti-resistant polyurethane coating, for commercial vehicles, trains and industrial goods, that is supplied as a water-based rather than an organic solvent-based dispersion. Bayer says that coatings are also very resistant to scratches and weathering. The company says graffiti removal costs €500million (£360 million) each year in Germany alone. 

Medical imaging sale 

Bristol-Myers Squibb has agreed to sell its medical imaging business to private equity firm Avista for $525 million. The unit supplies products for nuclear and ultrasound imaging procedures. BMS says it plans to reinvest the proceeds into new pharmaceuticals. 

Strategic alliance

GSK has entered a strategic alliance with Danish biotech firm Santaris Pharma to discover, develop and commercialise RNA-based antiviral medicines. Santaris will grant GSK options on drug candidates from four viral disease programmes, in return for up to $700 million if certain drug development milestones are met. 

Welsh biofuel go-ahead

Canada’s Flex Fuel Energy has received planning permission to build a biodiesel refinery at the Port of Cardiff, Wales. The company had already received consent to build an adjacent oilseed crush and solvent extraction plant. The company is planning an integrated, 200 000 tonne-per-year facility, to be built by the specialised engineering group Lurgi. 

EU drug inquiry

EU regulators have raided some of the world’s largest drug companies, including Pfizer and GSK, as part of an inquiry into whether they have conspired to reduce competition from generics. Investigators will assess whether the firms misuse patent law to hold off generic competition. No companies have been charged with any wrongdoing. 

Stressed crops calmed

Syngenta is to partner AgroFresh to develop and commercialise Invinsa, the first product to protect crop yields in stressed plants. Invinsa blocks the natural plant hormone ethylene, which causes yield loss in heat- or drought-stressed crops  for the full story go to website

Ineos investment

UK chemicals group Ineos has agreed to buy BP’s vinyl acetate monomer and ethyl acetate businesses. The deal comprises two 250ktpa plants near Hull, UK, which had sales of around ?400 million in 2007.

ICI ex-chairman dies

Sir John Harvey-Jones, the former chairman of ICI, has died at the age of 83. He had transformed the firm in the 1980s, reviving its fortunes by significant restructuring. Akzo Nobel completed its purchase of ICI on 2 January 2008. 

AZ goes direct to pharmacy

AstraZeneca is to follow Pfizer’s lead and set up a ’direct-to-pharmacy’ distribution deal in the UK for its drugs. All the company’s medicines will be sold through two distributors, AAH and UniChem, from February. The UK’s Office of Fair Trading has said such deals could cost the National Health Service millions of pounds. 

Eli Lilly swaps heads

Sidney Taurel, CEO of Eli Lilly, is to retire on 31 March 2008, and will be replaced by John Lechleiter, who originally joined the company as an organic chemist in 1979. 

Bayer weedkiller

Bayer has developed a new weed control for corn, based on a combination of isoxaflutole with thiencarbazone-methyl. Bayer says that, pending regulatory approval, it hopes to introduce the product in the US in 2009. 

No scar from failed trial?

Renovo chief executive Mark Ferguson says that its experimental anti-scarring drug Juvista failed a clinical trial because of a technical hitch. The drug, designed to prevent scarring following surgery, is believed by analysts to be a potential blockbuster. 

Wuxi buys into US

Chinese pharmaceutical research company Wuxi PharmaTech has agreed to buy US company AppTec Laboratory Services for $151 million. The deal improves Wuxi’s biotechnology expertise. 


GlaxoSmithKline will be run from London from May 2008, when new CEO Andrew Witty takes charge. Current chief JP Garnier, who has run the company since its formation in 2001, is based in Philadelphia, US. 

Thai drug talks end

Talks between the Thai government and drug makers Novartis, Sanofi-aventis and Roche over cheaper access to cancer medicines ended without agreement. Government officials say the country will copy the drugs, or buy them from generics manufacturers in India. 

Merck schizophrenia drug deal 

US drug company Merck has agreed with Swiss firm Addex Pharmaceuticals to develop a candidate schizophrenia drug, in a deal that could earn Addex up to $702 million if drug development reaches certain milestones. 

IBM accused of toxic discharges

The long-running pollution dispute between International Business Machines (IBM) and residents around IBM’s former site in Endicott, New York, is heading to court after talks between them failed. 

No Australian uranium for India 

Australia’s new government has said it will not sell uranium to India, unless New Delhi signs the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty. The move reverses the decision made by the previous government. 

Fuel cell stake

Energy giant and British Gas-owner Centrica has agreed to buy 10 per cent of fuel cell company Ceres Power for ?20 million. Ceres, a spin-out of Imperial College, London, UK, has developed a fuel cell-based combined heat and power device for domestic homes.