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The New Year Alchemist discovers that recycled paper can be made magnetic while molecular wheels can self-assemble. Ancient fossilized clues could lie behind the high incidence of lung cancer among women in some parts of China and new small molecules that can breach the blood-brain barrier have been discovered that may one day help treat Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. In analytical news we learn that fresh breast milk is nothing to be sniffed at but putting it on ice is a fishy proposition. Finally, the first award the Alchemist reports this year is for a million dollars for active matter research.




Phil LoGrasso and his colleagues in the Translational Research Institute at Scripps Florida, have discovered a new class of compounds that can cross the blood-brain barrier and might be useful leads in neurodegenerative diseases. The team has developed highly selective small molecule inhibitors of a key brain kinase c-jun-N-terminal kinase (JNK). "These are the first JNK selective inhibitors that have demonstrated an ability to penetrate the blood-brain barrier," LoGrasso explains. "JNK is a good target to inhibit for diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and stroke. The compounds we developed are highly potent, plus they inhibit reactive oxygen species, one of the potential causes for neurodegenerative disease."





Breast milk provides infants with all the nutrients they need for the first six months of life, but it doesn't tend to come in pasteurized bottles ready for storage in the refrigerator. Now, German researchers have studied the changes in the aroma profile of stored milk using a trained panel of sniffers to characterize the odor of fresh and stored human milk. They then coupled the results with gas chromatography with olfactometric and mass spectrometric detection to pinpoint the cause of metallic and fishy odors produced as human milk goes off. These notes are not necessarily abhorrent to the infant being fed, but may represent a deterioration of the milk quality.





A $1 million, three-year award has been granted by the W.M. Keck Foundation to Brandeis University to assist in research into a new category of materials known as active matter. Unlike inert materials such as steel or plastic, active matter can move on its own, displaying properties previously observed only in living materials such as muscles and cells. "In this project, we will exploit biology in order to make advances in active matter, which has become a frontier field in soft matter physics," explains Zvonimir Dogic, who uses optical microscopy to study self-assembly of biopolymers.





A magnetic "ferropaper" that could be used for making low-cost micromotors for surgical instruments, tiny tweezers for studying cells and even miniature speakers has been developed by researchers at Purdue University. Babak Ziaie, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, explains that the ferropaper can be made from any paper, including newsprint, by loading iron oxide nanoparticles into the paper. "Because paper is very soft it won't damage cells or tissue," Ziaie explains. "It is very inexpensive to make. You put a droplet on a piece of paper, and that is your actuator, or motor."





Researchers in Glasgow, UK and Bielefeld, Germany have used X-ray crystallography to obtain a snapshot structure of a 4-nanometer molecular wheel complete with a templating central hub. The wheel is produced by self-assembly and offers new insights into how functional nanoscopic objects might be made for a wide range of possible applications in electronics, medicine, and catalysis. The metal-oxide based molecular wheels, first discovered by Achim Mueller and co-workers in Bielefeld, were this time produced by a flow system devised by Glasgow's Lee Cronin and his colleagues. Cronin says that the manipulation of self-assembly in flow systems will open up many new applications in both the design and understanding of complex nano-systems.





Ancient volcanic eruptions that led to mass extinctions of life 250 million years ago might still be killing to this day thanks to the high silica content of coal mined in Xuan Wei County in Yunnan Province, China. David Large of the University of Nottingham, UK, explains that this region has twenty times the incidence of lung cancer in non-smoking women. Writing in Environmental Science & Technology, he and his colleagues explain that coal from this region contains ten times as much silica as that from other regions. Silica has been linked to increased cancer risk through exposure to polyaromatic hydrocarbons of the kind formed in the smoke of burning coal.