ChemWeb Newsletter

Not a subscriber? Join now.January 11, 2005


In this week's Alchemist we report on the bioterrorist alarm, the propulsion chemical that has rocketed into the environmental debate, and the novel proteins that could act as markers for cancer. We also look at the nanoplastic that can see in the dark and a spicy solution to diabetes.

A biological smoke detector developed by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California could be used as a standalone device for protecting people in airports, office buildings, rail stations, sporting arenas and other public places from biological weapons attacks. The Autonomous Pathogen Detection System, or APDS, continuously monitors the air explains LLNL chemical engineer John Dzenitis and can detect bacteria, viruses and toxins, such as anthrax, plague, and botulinum.

The US National Academy of Sciences has reported that pollution from the solid rocket propellant ingredient perchlorate may be safe below a certain level but not as low as the levels argued by industry. Perchlorate can affect thyroid function and may pose a risk to the developing fetus. There are, however, no federal safety limits on how much is safe in drinking water or food crops. The NAS proposes a limit of 0.7 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. This is approximately twenty times the "reference dose" proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental groups claim the government applied pressure to influence the NAS report, an accusation vehemently denied by the organization.

The discovery of Novel Structure Proteins (NSPs) by Antonio Giordano and colleagues at Temple University could allow doctors to predict whether a person will develop certain types of cancer. NSPs are expressed to high levels by a gene found in tumor cells that in healthy cells is associated with chromosome maintenance. Giardano says one particular gene, NSP5a3a, could act as a marker for potential malignancy in cells, which might allow much earlier diagnosis. Moreover, as these proteins are needed for tumor growth they could become the target of a novel cancer therapy.

New carbon-based materials that are sensitive to infra-red radiation could lead to the development of digital cameras that can see in the dark, smart walls that control the temperature of a room, and clothing that can power a mobile phone, PDA, or mp3 player. Ted Sargent of the University of Toronto and his colleagues have developed a sprayable material from semiconductor nanocrystals they can apply to almost any surface including textiles. The particles are sensitive to infra-red wavelengths and so could be used as either a sensor material or to harvest IR radiation for electricity generation.

Polyphenolics extracted from cinnamon bark could be key to a new treatment for diabetes. Research into cinnamon has hinted that a regular dose of the spice could alleviate the symptoms of type II diabetes by lowering blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol. Now, Vancouver company PhytoMedical Technologies is to synthesize natural products from cinnamon that could be tested against the disease. President and CEO Indy Panchi explains the company's strategy: "Our job now is to develop a naturally derived synthetic end product that can be easily ingested as a pill or added to soft drinks or other liquids, with the end result being lower blood sugar levels through more efficient use of insulin without the risk or side effects of currently available pharmacological treatment options."