From Lee Higham

From Lee Higham

It was interesting to read the article on the changing face of university chemistry (Chemistry World, February 2006, p36). Should closing chemistry departments be resisted if it appears to be part of a natural progression? Is it important to have a departmental status for the subject? This is a tricky one, but I bet Cambridge and Oxford won’t be losing theirs any time soon, which touches on the point I would like to make.  

The problems facing chemistry at the moment have their roots in one common denominator: status. Chemistry is often thought of as dull by schoolchildren, and dirty by wider society (hence all the public awareness programmes). In comparison to other subjects (even other sciences) chemistry undergraduates perceive their courses to be among the most time and labour intensive. And what about the fate of postgraduates? It is a choice between a better paid job outside of the subject (after around seven years study at university level), the derisory lottery of postdoctoral work or industry where it is not uncommon to reward your studies with an 11 month initial contract to avoid longer term contractual obligations - a ’golden hello’ indeed. 

It is clear to me that our first steps must be to resolve our very low standing across many a community. Not having our own department in itself is not important; but it is critical if it is a reflection on our continually eroding status, and I believe it is. 

As for interdisciplinarity (clearly a noble endeavour), as a discipline we seem to have taken our eye off the ball regarding the explosion of interest in biological sciences (and hence funding). Sixteen years ago I was regularly advised not to take A-level biology (advice I ignored) and to go instead with the ’more respected’ chemistry and physics. With more insight, perhaps biochemistry and the like might have been housed instead in chemistry departments. 

L Higham MRSC 
Dublin, Ireland 

From Duncan Bruce, Adrian Dobbs and David Smith

Having read Bea Perks’ feature on chemistry departments, we feel that one comment attributed to Mike Ferguson requires response (Chemistry World, February 2006,  p36). Ferguson is reported as saying that ’he was keen to avoid running the department [in Dundee] into the ground as he had seen happen at Exeter’.

The department in Exeter was not run into the ground. Indeed, September 2004 saw the commissioning of a new ?3.5 million teaching laboratory kitted out to serve the needs of both chemistry and biology, and new members of permanent academic staff were appointed as recently as 2003. In the academic years 2002-2003 and 2003-2004, the department had filled its undergraduate quota (over 60 full time equivalent students - around 100 students) and applications through UCAS had increased by 20 per cent year on year; they were further increasing in 2004-2005 until the plug was pulled. Hardly the adverse ’market forces’ of the comment attributed to the university. 

Further, the ca 20 academics in chemistry were raising some 10 per cent of the entire university overhead-bearing income. The department was in fact closed in a timeframe of just over nine months from the initial announcement to staff on 22 November 2004.

One other point is worth making. At the time the closure was announced, the chemistry department at Exeter was in a school with the department of biological sciences. Of the deficit attributed to the combined school by the university, just over one third was attributable to activity in chemistry and indeed, comparison with the data provided in the RSC policy bulletin 2 would seem to show that this deficit was smaller than all of the other departments that took part in the study.

Observers should be careful about how they interpret events at Exeter. The chemistry department was closed not because it was unsuccessful or run down, but to help offset a university-wide deficit.

D Bruce (former head of chemistry at Exeter)
A Dobbs (former tutor for undergraduate admissions at Exeter)
D Smith (former chair of teaching committee at Exeter)

Mike Ferguson, University of Dundee, UK, replies:  
I apologise to Duncan Bruce, Adrian Dobbs and David Smith for any offence caused. It is true that I am not conversant with the details of the closure of chemistry at Exeter and I agree, in hindsight, that I should not have used it as a comparator with the situation in Dundee when being interviewed.

From David Richardson

I enjoyed the article by Brian Malpass on molecules and poetry (Chemistry World, February 2006, p80). I recall a further verse on DDT:

A mosquito was heard to complain
That a chemist had poisoned his brain
The cause of his sorrow
Was paradichloro

I’m not sure if the name is strictly correct, but you get the picture, as they say. 

Also, please forgive my appalling pedantry, but The elements by Tom Lehrer does not cite the name of every single chemical element. 

The song was written and published before the discovery of Lawrencium, so contains only the first 102 chemical elements. I know this because I’ve just had to sing it through to verify. Now, where did I put my anorak....? 

D Richardson CChem MRSC
The Health and Safety Executive, Edinburgh, UK 

From Ian Carmichael

The article by Brian Malpass on poetry and chemistry was of great interest (Chemistry World, February 2006, p80). 

However, he says that in Dulce et decorum est Wilfred Owen is describing a phosgene gas attack. I am not so sure of that. In the poem Owen describes the scene as viewed through the eyepieces of his gas mask thus: 

Dim through the misty panes
and thick green light.

Phosgene is a colourless gas. It sounds more like chlorine to me.

I Carmichael CChem MRSC
Orpington, UK

From Roger Gleave

Brian Malpass is to be congratulated on opening yet another fruitful field of research (Chemistry World, February 2006, p80). 

His poem about little Johnny reminded me of an ode to acid-base reactions that my first chemistry teacher, Oscar Yorke, taught us:

Tommy, feeling life a bore,
Drank some H2SO4.
Tommy’s father (an MD),
Gave him CaCO3.
Now, he’s neutralised, it’s true,
But he’s full of CO2.

Possibly not high art, but it has stayed with me for half a century - which is more than can be said for all that soppy guff about daffodils and suchlike.

E R Gleave CChem MRSC
Darwen, UK

From Colin Cook

The question: ’The discovery of which element has had the most impact and why?’ was not answered by your respondents (Chemistry World, January 2006, p11). 

Ken Wade posed an alternative question which actually all three respondents answered. 

The discovery of an element is different from its usefulness. Of course, carbon would be important even if it had not been ’discovered’ (although there could be no chemistry without discovery). 

I would suggest Uranium, because it needs to be isolated as an element (or simple compound) before it can be used in thermonuclear reactions.

C Cook CChem MRSC
By email

From Nicholas Farrell

A recent chemical science item highlighted the promise of transplatinum compounds as a new class of antitumour agents (Chemistry World, February 2006, p22). 

The clinical use of cisplatin, cis-[PtCl2(NH3)2], is associated with cures in testicular cancer. More recently oxaliplatin has shown considerable efficacy in treatment of colorectal cancer. These findings have focused attention on developing further classes of clinically useful platinum agents. In this respect the transplatinum geometry deserves attention. 

For many years, the paradigm for structure-activity relationships in platinum anticancer chemistry was that the trans geometry, as in transplatin trans-[PtCl2(NH3)2], was inactive. We showed that replacing NH3 with a planar amine (L) such as pyridine produces compounds that are, remarkably, as cytotoxic as cisplatin in both cisplatin sensitive and resistant cells. 

This observation has been confirmed using a variety of N-donors including iminoethers, alicyclic amines and aliphatic heteroyclic amines. Indeed it now appears that transplatin is the exception rather than the rule! 

Generally, all these compounds show micromolar cytotoxicity and maintain activity in cisplatin-resistant cells. Little meaningful antitumor activity in vivo has been reported, however, probably because of their poor solubility and chemical reactivity. 

Recently we reported that using carboxylate leaving groups, in trans-[Pt(O2CR)2(L)(L?)], gives compounds which are both water-soluble and remarkably stable to hydrolysis. These new trans-PtN2O2 compounds are active in both cisplatin and oxaliplatin-resistant cells. Further, we suggested that the ’trans-carboxylate’ strategy is a general one, applicable to all donor ligands such as those above. The chemical science item now confirms this point. 

A comprehensive analysis of a wide range of platinum structural types, including the trans-[PtCl2(L)(L?)] series, confirmed very distinct profiles of biological activity compared to the cisplatin group. Extrapolation of these findings to in vivo activity would indeed represent a very promising strategy to further extending platinum’s usefulness in the cancer drug armamentarium. 

N Farrell
By email

Further Reading

E S Ma et al, J. Med. Chem., 2005, 48, 5651 
G A Quiroga et alJ. Med. Chem., 2006, 49, 224
T Fojo et al, Crit. Rev. Oncol.Hematol., 2005, 53, 25 

From Ronald Dell

Would any pharmaceutical chemist care to enlighten the rest of the chemistry profession on how the names of pharmaceuticals are chosen? Some (aspirin) are clearly trivial or historical. Others are baffling. 

As someone with elevated blood pressure, each morning I enjoy with my breakfast cereal bendroflumethiazide and enalapril maleate without having the faintest idea what I am swallowing or how an ACE inhibitor really works. Being a chemist (albeit not an organic one) I am curious. I understand the maleate bit, but what is enalapril and how did it get its name? As for bendroflumethiazide I am quite puzzled as to its structure and the origin of the name. Surely it is not an azide: is it derived from thiazole? And how about the pain relievers paracetamol and tramadol; are these alcohols as a chemist might suppose?

For years I wondered about tamoxifen (the cancer drug) because ’tam’ seems such an un-chemical prefix. Then I came across tamsulosin hydrochloride and now the media are discussing tamiflu to treat avian flu. Evidently ’tam’ is popular with pharmaceutical chemists. Recently someone said that it was short for tertiary amine, which might make sense, but I really don’t know. Can anyone help?

R Dell, CChem FRSC
Abingdon, UK