Short items

Crucible recipe cracked 

Exceptionally heat-resistant crucibles renowned in the Middle Ages contained a material widely used in modern ceramics, researchers from University College London, UK, have revealed in Nature. Marcos Martin?n-Torres’ team found mullite, an aluminium silicate used in building materials, in crucibles from Hesse, now in modern Germany, which dominated the international market in the 15th century.  

’Mullite is extremely resistant to thermal, chemical and mechanical stresses, and that’s what made the crucibles so fit for their functions,’ said Martin?n-Torres. The mullite, he suggested, probably crystallised from the decomposition of aluminium-rich kaolinite clay at temperatures over 1100?C, as crucibles were fired in the potter’s kiln. 

Catching fraudsters 

The US journal Science  has promised to check ’high-risk’ research more carefully after an independent panel found the publication had inadequate procedures to detect fraudulent work. 

Science  had appointed the six-member review committee following the controversy over research on cloned stem cells, from a team headed by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk, published by the journal in 2005 and later retracted. The panel suggested that the journal work out a system to identify potentially high-risk papers - those that were counter-intuitive or would generate media and political interest - and scrutinise them more carefully. Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, said the journal accepted the panel’s major findings.  

Cold War clean-up 

US chemical engineers have reported successful trials of a renewable resin intended to aid the clean-up of post-cold-war ballistic missiles.  

Explosive materials used in the missiles’ solid propellant, like ammonium perchlorate, are currently washed away with jets of water. But the soluble perchlorate has now heavily contaminated the drinking water of tens of millions of people in California (which has several missile testing sites) and other parts of the US. The new resin cleans the water and can be regenerated once exhausted: it should more than halve the cost of remediating highly contaminated areas. 

Sussex vice-chancellor quits 

The vice-chancellor who suggested closing the University of Sussex chemistry department last year (see Chemistry World, April 2006, p6 and June 2006, pp2 and 12) has announced he is to step down.  

Alasdair Smith said that he would leave in August 2007, following ’careful reflection over the summer’. He had originally planned to serve a second five-year term as vice-chancellor, which would have run until August 2008.  

China goes solar 

China is to build a giant photovoltaic solar power station costing around $766 million (?390 million) in Dunhuang, Gansu. The 100 megawatt plant will take five years to complete.  

The project, billed by Chinese news agencies as the world’s largest, follows last month’s announcement of a 154 megawatt plant for Victoria state, Australia. Large thermal or photovoltaic solar plants are also planned in Almeria, Spain; California, US; and southern Israel. 

Shake-up for clinical trials 

Clinical trial design in the UK may change, following the recommendations of an expert group commissioned after the disastrous trial in March 2006 that left six subjects fighting for their lives. The 22 recommendations made by the group echoes those of other experts (see Chemistry World, September 2006, p14); notably that drugs that have never been administered to people should first be tested at extremely low doses, and that such drugs should be administered to only one subject at a time. 

At the release of the report, Stephen Inglis, director of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, London, UK, hinted that a test, currently in development, could have predicted the amplified immune response suffered by those taking monoclonal antibody TGN1412 in March’s clinical trial. 

Manchester counters terror 

The University of Manchester’s chemistry department has been awarded more than ?5 million by the UK government’s Home Office to develop counter-terrorism technologies.  

Three projects lasting up to four years aim to produce cheap printable sensors for chemical contaminants; discover new molecules for materials to clean up radioactive sites; and make portable devices to detect and identify air-borne biological hazards. 

Strontium keeps good time 

US physicists have created a highly stable optical clock from strontium atoms trapped by laser beams. Jun Ye from the University of California, US, and colleagues reported their precise timekeeper in Science.  

Measuring the frequency of laser absorption between two atomic energy levels of strontium gives a ’ticking’ accurate to around five parts in 1015. Although slightly less precise than state-of-the-art mercury ion atomic clocks, the strength and stability of the strontium clock signal allows the possibility of longer and more accurate measurements, the scientists suggest. 

CO2 ’pollutant’ claims heard 

The US Supreme Court has heard the first evidence in a legal case brought by Massachusetts and 11 other US states against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  

The states, together with environmental campaign groups, are arguing that carbon dioxide should be defined as a pollutant, therefore being subject to EPA restriction under the 1970 Clean Air Act. The EPA says it has no powers to impose limits on carbon dioxide emissions, because the gas does not meet the Clean Air Act’s definition of a pollutant. The case, Massachusetts versus EPA, is expected to be ruled upon in June 2007. 

Methane rise slows 

The rise in concentration of the greenhouse gas methane has slowed, US researchers say. Results published in Geophysical Research Letters  showed methane levels had stabilised in the last seven years, to about 150 per cent above pre-industrial levels.  

As methane is broken down relatively easily in the atmosphere, curbing its production linked to human activities could drastically lower atmospheric methane concentrations, the researchers said. 

Silicone implants allowed 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has overturned a 14-year ban on silicone gel breast implants. In 1992, reports of pain, deformity and illness from leaking or ruptured implants had forced the ban and prompted thousands of lawsuits.  

Health groups have criticised the FDA’s decision, calling it a triumph of corporate lobbying and hype over sound science and women’s health. 

EU cuts carbon permits 

The European Union has reduced the carbon permits allowed to its member states under the European Trading Scheme (ETS) for 2008-2012. The new limits, an average 7 per cent lower than 2005 allowances, mark a tougher second phase of the scheme which aims to help EU countries meet their Kyoto protocol targets. The stricter carbon allowances were set below the plans submitted by most nations; they have two months to challenge the limits in a European court.  

UK chancellor Gordon Brown announced in his pre-Budget report that the number of nations in the ETS would expand from 25 to 31 over the next few years. Brown also said he would push for further links with international carbon trading markets. 

Pfizer blockbuster fails 

US pharmaceuticals company Pfizer halted production of its heart and cholesterol drug, torcetrapib, after unexpected failure in Phase III clinical trials (see In the pipeline, p16). 

Of 15,000 patients in the trial, more people died or suffered cardiovascular problems after taking torcetrapib with Pfizer’s cholesterol-lowering statin Lipitor, than those in a control group who took the statin alone. 

Easier access to unapproved drugs 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed regulatory changes designed to make it easier for seriously ill patients to have access to experimental drugs.  

According to the FDA, the rules are intended to improve access to unapproved drugs for patients with serious or immediately life-threatening diseases, who lack other therapeutic options and who might benefit from the therapy. 

The proposed regulations, which the FDA opened for comment for 90 days from 11 December 2006, also clarify when and how much a manufacturer can charge for an experimental drug.