BASF juggles hot potatoes

German chemicals giant BASF has been courting controversy with two types of genetically modified potato. The Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) has granted permission for the company to grow its GM blight-resistant potatoes at field sites in the UK, while the European Commission has rejected an application for commercial cultivation of its new starchy potato, Amflora. 

The Defra decision met with outcry from environmental pressure groups. ’These GM trials pose a significant contamination threat to future potato crops,’ said Friends of the Earth campaigner, Clare Oxborrow. ’We don’t need GM potatoes’. Shortly after the Defra decision, BASF’s second GM potato, Amflora, engineered to produce commercially amenable starch, failed to impress the European Commission. BASF had been confident of approval, and planned to begin planting in 2007.  

Amflora could make a key contribution to renewable resources across Europe, according to BASF. It has been modified to produce a type of starch particularly suited to industrial applications, such as paper production. The modification includes the use of an antibiotic resistance marker; plant cells successfully modified to produce the desired type of starch are identified at the development stage because they survive treatment with the antibiotic. 

Back in 1998 the UK’s Royal Society joined calls for further research into alternatives to antibiotic resistance marker genes. There is no evidence that the genes transfer to pathogens in the environment, the society concluded, but it is an area of public concern and needs to be addressed. The RS has said it is not acceptable to have antibiotic resistance genes present in new GM food crops. Amflora is not technically a food crop, but it is nonetheless a potato 
and its developers say it is edible (though not terribly tasty). Amflora contains a gene for resistance to kanamycin, a widely prescribed antibiotic. ’The use of this gene does not lead to a detectable increase in resistant bacteria and is therefore completely safe,’ said a spokesperson for BASF, flying in the face of RS advice.  

’There is the possibility of using alternative markers, and if that makes the difference in terms of public acceptance and regulatory approval, this is the obvious way forward,’ said Guy Poppy, professor of ecology at the University of Southampton, UK. ’One must realise that the scientific part of risk assessment is only part of the overall risk analysis,’ said Poppy, a member of biotech advocacy group CropGen. 

Biofuel collaboration

Oil giant Shell and US biotech firm Codexis have announced a collaboration to develop methods of converting biomass to biofuels. Shell sold nearly 800 million gallons (3 billion litres) of biofuel in 2005, mostly in the US and Brazil, and claims to be the world’s largest distributor of transport biofuels.  

’We are exploring the application of Codexis’ proprietary technologies to produce alternative fuels from renewable, sustainable sources,’ said David Sexton, president of Shell Oil Products US. 

Breath of fresh air

Synairgen, a spinout company from the University of Southampton, UK, has obtained an exclusive licence to intellectual property covering a novel peptide with therapeutic potential for asthma treatment. 

The peptide was discovered during research funded by Asthma UK. In preliminary in vitro studies the peptide has been shown to suppress the effects of both interleukin 4 (IL-4) and IL-13, the inflammatory proteins considered central to the development of allergic asthma. ’This is a potentially very significant discovery in our mission to find the next generation of asthma therapy,’ said Richard Marsden, managing director of Synairgen. ’The industry has invested significant resource into individual and combined anti IL-13 and IL-4 approaches, and our proprietary peptide appears to suppress both proteins in a unique way.’ 

Microwave chemistry

US microwave technology company CEM has established a microwave chemistry subsidiary in India. CEM officials said the unit, set up in partnership with Indian distributor Niulab, will advance the spread of microwave chemistry to the Indian market, including academic and commercial laboratories. An initial team of four chemists will be based in Mumbai, and the team is expected to expand to 10 members over the next two years. 

GSK invests in antibodies

Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has entered into an agreement to acquire Domantis, which develops antibody therapies, for £230 million. Domantis, a privately owned company, will become part of GSK’s Biopharmaceuticals centre of excellence for drug discovery (CEDD), while continuing to operate from laboratories in Cambridge, UK.  

’Domantis has pioneered the extension of antibody therapies to potentially far wider applications than has been possible with conventional monoclonal antibodies,’ said Mike Owen, senior vice president, Biopharmaceuticals CEDD, GSK. Current research areas at Domantis include rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. 

Distribution agreement for MIP

Swedish biotech company MIP Technologies has signed an exclusive global agreement with Supelco, a division of global life-science firm Sigma-Aldrich, for the distribution of analytical and preparative molecularly imprinted polymer (MIP) separation products.  

The companies will collaborate on the development of new products, while MIP Technologies will continue to develop its process scale separations business separately. MIPs are solid phase polymer materials manufactured with specific affinity for single compounds or classes of compounds.  

Rubber cartel

US chemical giant Dow Chemical, Italian oil company Eni, and Royal Dutch Shell are among companies to be fined €519 million (£264 million) by the European Commission for operating a synthetic rubber price-fixing cartel. The commission said the companies, plus Bayer, operated the cartel from at least 1996 to 2002. Bayer is exempt from the fine because it received full immunity for being the first company to notify the commission of the cartel. 

UK nuclear lab

The Department of trade and industry (DTI) has announced plans to establish a national nuclear laboratory based around the British Technology Centre at Sellafield, UK and Nexia Solutions, a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels. ’The intention by Government to create a national nuclear laboratory will help to safeguard the country’s nuclear skills and capability,’ said Peter Bleasdale, managing director of Nexia Solutions.  

New pipeline online

Gas has begun to flow through a new pipeline under the North Sea which connects the UK to the Netherlands. The Bacton-Balgzand pipeline will supply eight per cent of the UK’s gas needs and is the third new piece of infrastructure to come on stream this winter. The pipeline was put in place following a treaty signed by the UK and Dutch governments in 2005.  

Certification group invests in immunochem

Intertek, which provides testing, inspection and certification services worldwide, has announced that its oil, chemical and agri division (Caleb Brett) has acquired Alta Analytical Laboratories. US firm Alta supplies immunochemistry and LC/MS/MS bioanalytical services to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Alta has labs in San Diego and near Sacramento, California with approximately 110 staff.  

Sweet smell of success

The world’s largest flavour supplier, Swiss company Givaudan, has agreed to buy Imperial Chemical Industries’ fragrance-and-flavour business, Quest International, for £1.2 billion. The deal will make Givaudan the world’s largest supplier of scents used in perfumes. The group will finance the purchase using debt and the sale of as much as 1 billion Swiss francs (£414 million) of shares.  

Selling the kitchen sink

Johnson Matthey is to sell its ceramics division to a company established by Pamplona, a private equity investment fund, for approximately €226 million (£153 million). The transaction is conditional upon regulatory approval in Germany, Spain and Portugal and is expected to be completed on 28 February 2007.  

The division, based in Spain, is a global supplier of raw materials and intermediate products to the tile and sanitaryware industries. It had sales of £182.2 million in the financial year ended 31 March 2006. For the six months ended 30 September 2006, the division had sales of £90.1 million and made an operating profit of £10.2 million.