Chemistry World podcast - January 2014


Audio Files

0.57 - Further to last month's podcast, a new investigation into the death of Yasser Arafat concludes that he was not poisoned with polonium-210. New report concludes Arafat was not poisoned

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1.58 - Citizen scientists in the US have played a pivotal role in the discovery of a new cancer-killing compound. Crowdsourcing unearths promising anticancer compound

4.35 - After 150 million theoretical calculations, scientists at Harvard University in the US reveal results that could cut down the time and cost of experimental tests to find better organic electronic materials for solar cells. Big data approach to solar cells

7.38 - Phil Ball takes us through the history of the Turin Shroud - Chemistry in the face of belief
 
14.24 - Meat found mummified and preserved in a valuable oil show that ancient Egyptians valued their food, even after death. Meat mummies a feast fit for a Pharaoh
 
16.42 - Chemical analysis of 2000 year old pottery artefacts unearthed in southern Mexico suggests that people were spicing up their diet with chilli sauce almost a thousand years earlier than previously thought. Earliest use of chilli sauce put back hundreds of years
 
20.26 - Mike Glazer looks at the history of crystallography and the discovery of x-ray diffraction. Crystal clear
 
26.28 - A raft of new hepatitis C treatments are reaching approval stages, but may hit rough waters with Indian patent laws. New wave of hepatitis C drugs hits US shore
 
31.03 - For those who nursed a New Year’s hangover, David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, has an idea with obvious appeal: a reversible alcohol substitute. The morning after the night before
 
33.42 - Do you see the stories in science? If you 're interested in science writing, journalism or communication - this is the competition for you. Chemistry World science communication competition 2013

Full transcript

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Welcome to Chemistry World as we go in to 2014, Happy New Year. I am Chris Smith and in this month’s podcast, the Turin Shroud and why it’s still controversial; the world’s earliest spicy Mexican dish discovered and the drug that reversibly mimics the effects of alcohol, but would you take it?

And with me this month, are Phillip Broadwith, Emma Stoye and Emily James. Citizen Science in just a second but before that, Phillip has more on the investigations surrounding Yasser Arafat’s death, a decade ago, Phillip.

(0:57 - New report concludes Arafat was not poisoned)

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Last month on the podcast, we had a bit of a story about the investigation as to how Yasser Arafat died and the conclusions from the Swiss group then, was that he probably was poisoned with polonium-210 but they couldn’t tell for absolutely sure. This month, there’s a French group who has come out with their findings, because there are several groups investigating this all at the same time, and they are saying that actually they didn’t think he was poisoned with polonium-210 for a variety of reasons looking at similar data. So it’s a very complicated issue.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Long time ago though, wasn’t it?

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Because it’s so long ago, it’s a large number of half-lives of the polonium, so there’s only going to be tiny, tiny amounts left, so getting anything conclusive is going to be very difficult.

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

So, what’s the next step? What more could they do to try and find out what actually happened?

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Well, there is another group still investigating that hasn’t quite published their results yet but, the more the time passes the less and less likely we are to get a definitive answer.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Maybe, they need the help of some citizen science.

 (1:58 - Crowdsourcing unearths promising anticancer compound)

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

Something that we’ve been looking at a lot of this month is ways that citizen scientists can contribute to science. There has been a really nice story, where a group at the University of Oklahoma in the US wanted to screen compounds from fungi for antibacterial properties, anticancer properties and for that they needed soil samples. So, they actually set up a website and asked people all over the US to send them soil samples. They could send off for a kit - which is basically just a bag and an envelope, really - and scoop up some soil from their back garden and send it back to the lab. They have been doing this for two years, they’ve been collecting all these soil samples, isolating fungi from the soil samples and then looking at any interesting compounds they get out and screening them for biological properties. They’ve actually found one compound from one soil sample that was sent in from a lady in Alaska that’s actually really promising. They’ve called it maximiscin and it shows a really good anticancer properties. It can kill melanoma cells of a specific type in vitro and also human melanoma cells that have been transplanted in to mice. So it’s actually looking really promising and this is just a really, really nice example of something that the group couldn’t decide by themselves that they were going to sample soil from the whole of the US and just by getting people involved, they were able to cover a far wider area and have actually come out with something that could potentially prove really useful in the future.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

The other potential issue is contamination. If you’re looking for a source of new molecules, it doesn’t really matter whether your sample is contaminated but if you’re going to go further than that and start to look at identifying bacterial populations or trying to look at the spread around different places, then contamination would become much more of an issue.

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

Yes, absolutely if you are just documenting what bacteria comes from the soil in which parts of the country, then it would be really important as to when someone has scooped it up, that something could have come in off their shoes or the spade or something, so that’s something that you probably would have to be careful with if you’re using this crowd sourcing approach but for this application just when you are trying to isolate things and get at these compounds and it doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s come from the sample or from any contaminations as long as you have them and you can grow them, it’s quite a good way or quite a clever way of going about things really.

 (4:35 - Big data approach to solar cells)

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes, and that is a great way to get people involved but, some people don’t fancy actually getting out there and getting physically involved, but you can still be involved in science, you can donate your computer downtime and that’s what the World Community Grid does which is an IBM project.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Yes, we had them on this program didn’t we? Joe Jasinski who heads up that thing appeared on this program to talk about how they are basically harnessing the power of millions of peoples’ computers when they are not using them, what he calls free processor cycle time, to crack important biomedical problems that people bid for. They want to find this new drug for cancer or this new drug for HIV, can they have some World Community Grid time?

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes Chris, and it doesn’t actually even have to be drug discoveries. So what Alán Aspuru-Guzik and the Harvard Clean Energy Project are doing is applying that supercomputing power to look for new solar cells, so looking at organic molecules that you could use to harvest energy from the sun rather than using silicon. Because organic solar cells have the potential to be very cheap but they are not very efficient at the moment and there are millions and millions of different molecules that you could try putting in them to harvest the light. Making all of those molecules would take absolutely forever so you want to try and compute ways of narrowing down that list which is what they’ve been doing.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Have they got some?

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes, so they analyzed 2.3 million compounds, applied some computational parameters to various different combinations and found that their theory backs up what experimentalists already know. They identified some molecules that have already been tested and found to be quite good harvesters of solar energy.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So, that validates the model.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

It validates the model but also they’ve also found some that are new, that point to new directions to take this kind of research.

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

So, is this a sort of thing that would just be helpful for the scientists, or is there a way that the public could be more involved?

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Well, what the group has actually has done is that is they’ve taken their database, the results of the test, and opened that up to the public as well. So there’s 400 terabytes of data that anybody who wants to - whether that’s another research group or a member of the public – con trawl through and look for inspiration for new solar cells.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

You wouldn’t be downloading that where I live, the bandwidth I get, 400 terabytes!

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

A stupendous amount of data.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

That’s a lot of data.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So, it’s like open source software, isn’t it, like the chemical equivalent of Linux or something.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes, and that’s what that kind of distributed computing power gets you, you need a huge amount of computer power to process that kind of data.

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

And it seems only fair because if people are donating their computer power that they are then able to access the results.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes, and it really fits with the kind of open access movement that we are seeing in research at the moment, you know, the products of publicly funded research should be available to the public.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Can’t put it better myself. More from Phil and Emily later.

 (7:38 - Chemistry in the face of belief)

First though to a story that captivated me as a school boy, the Shroud of Turin. And despite carbon dating suggesting that it’s not nearly old enough to have been Christ’s real burial shroud this is a story which, as science writer Phil Ball puts it, won’t lie down.

Interviewee - Phil Ball

The shroud has been known since medieval times. It first turned up in the household of a French knight in the 14th century. For a long time it was just regarded as a relic like many others that existed in the middle ages. In fact there were other shrouds during the rounds at that time. But eventually it became the focus of a lot of attention because it seems particularly peculiar and has this image of a man who seems to have wounds in his feet and his hands, as though he has been crucified and it looks as though there is something like a crown of thorns on his head. So it was reckoned to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ and it was eventually recognized by the Roman Church as being this object and for a long time little more was known about it than that. It was only in the late 1980s that the church acquiesced to have the shroud properly tested, to be examined from a scientific point of view and in particular to be radiocarbon dated.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Was that the first point at which it did genuinely become controversial, had people just accepted that that’s what it was prior to that? And what changed the church’s mind do you think?

Interviewee - Phil Ball

Within the Roman church it had been a kind of accepted, I guess by a lot of Catholics that is what it was, but actually the church itself has always been very cautious about making any claims of that sort. It simply recognizes that this is an object that a lot of people venerate and a lot of people have strong beliefs about but the church is very cagy about making too many claims. Part of that comes from the fact that it’s simply extremely difficult to formulate any kind of theory for how this image was formed. If it’s a medieval forgery, even then it remains a bit of a mystery how on earth this was forged.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Has anyone done any chemical analysis just looking at the impregnated marks to see how they did that?

Interviewee - Phil Ball

Yes, they have. It’s very hard, as with everything with the shroud, it’s very hard to get completely reliable information about that but it does seem that there are iron oxide particles in the shroud. To some people these are the oxidation products of blood but we don’t know that. All we know is that there is iron oxide in there. We know that it’s linen, woven in a pattern that seems to be consistent with the way things were made in very early medieval times or perhaps even earlier in late Roman times in the Middle East in Constantinople and there have been other chemical analyses made on it for example, to look at problems of contamination. There have been suggestions that it’s been affected by the growth of microorganisms, of fungi on the cloth.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And what about the dating analysis? What changed in the 1980’s that then the church went along with it?

Interviewee - Phil Ball

Well, the church had been I guess under pressure for some time to have this object to looked at with radiocarbon dating, it’s the obvious thing to do. In fact it was one of the prime candidates for being radiocarbon dated ever since the technique was invented in the late 1940’s and I guess eventually the church acquiesced to that pressure and made available to three labs across the world small samples of the cloth so that they could subject them to radiocarbon dating.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And this confirmed that the shroud is old. But certainly not 2000 years old. It didn’t overlap with Christ’s birth date, did it, when they looked at the dates?

Interviewee - Phil Ball

It didn’t. It seems to date to around the 13th or 14th century which you know is consistent with when the first records of the shroud appear. So it seemed that at that point that there was a fairly cut and dried case that this was the age of the cloth. But inevitably that was disputed and has been disputed ever since. There are still people who believe that there were factors that distorted those dating techniques.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Well, what I was just going to ask is there any way to fool carbon dating?

Interviewee - Phil Ball

It can be wrong and there are some known other examples elsewhere of radiocarbon dates that seem to have been distorted. One way in which it’s been argued that there have been problems with the Turin shroud is this question of contamination by microorganisms growing on the cloth because they would be potentially much younger than the cloth itself and so if some of their carbon was dated alongside the cloth then it would produce a younger age. However it seems very unlikely that that will do the trick because you would need so much of this contamination to significantly distort the date if you are looking for a date around at that time of Christ. There’s also been suggestions, it’s known that the cloth was damaged in the 16th century by fire in the building in which it was housed in France and it’s been suggested that chemical processes during the combustion could have been incorporated some more recent carbon that also could have distorted the dates. Now, the cloth that was chosen for dating was taken very carefully from a part of the shroud that hadn’t been damaged by fire but nevertheless, it’s been argued that the gases, the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide involved in the burning were somehow incorporated into the cloth.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And has the story been laid to rest at that point?

Interviewee - Phil Ball

Well, it still continues to remain controversial. This question of fire damage has also been looked at by the people who did the study and they’ve concluded that there doesn’t seem to be any plausible way that sort of process could significantly distort the dates. So, from that scientific point of view, it seems there is no good reason to doubt the radiocarbon dates but a lot people have a lot invested in this cloth and the story refuses to lie down. Still people are arguing that there are problems with the radiocarbon dates and also that there are several other lines of evidence that seem to suggest that the cloth must be much older and that perhaps it dates right back to the time of Christ.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Phil Ball and sticking with archaeological relics: mummified meat, would you believe? Emily.

 (14:24 - Meat mummies a feast fit for a Pharaoh)

Interviewee - Emily James

So, I’ve brought some meat mummies to the table, so to speak. Scientists have found a rare pistacia balm has been used to preserve these Egyptian meat mummies.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So, let me get this straight. Ancient Egyptians were not just mummifying people and pharaohs and their priests and wives and so on, they were mummifying cuts of meat.

Interviewee - Emily James

Yes, exactly, so in these Egyptian tombs they had also placed food offerings so that the Egyptian humans could have something to snack on.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Egyptian humans as opposed to...

Interviewee - Emily James

Egyptian pets and votives and other offerings.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So, what sort of things they mummify?

Interviewee - Emily James

In food terms?

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Any cuts or were there specific cuts?

Interviewee - Emily James

So the meat that they’ve researched is actually a beef rib. It’s over 3300 years old, but what the exciting thing is, is that the pistacia balm that’s been used to mummify the meat is the earliest finding of the use of this balm, which predates even use on humans. This balm is quite exotic, it is very expensive and so only the wealthy Egyptians would be able to use that to embalm their loved ones.

Interviewee – Emma Stoye

So, how have they found out about these meat mummies and why has it taken them so long to a have a look at it?

Interviewee - Emily James

Basically, there are quite a lot of problems in sampling these mummies, so, they sampled the bandaging from the mummies, but it’s quite difficult to actually get into the meat to see what’s going on in there.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

What’s special about the pistacia balm, that means that a: was used and b: it was so favoured and highly regarded?

Interviewee - Emily James

Well, usually they used a coniferous resin, which is more commonly found on mummies. But I think it was just to show off that the wealth of the family that they use this really rare balm. So, basically finding this pistacia resin on meat mummies shows that the Egyptians valued their food mummies as much as they valued their human and animal mummies.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So they set great store by their meat. Well, Emma, tell us about Mexico because there is another archaeological story related to my favourite fruiting body, chilli.

 (16:42 - Earliest use of chilli sauce put back hundreds of years)

Interviewee – Emma Stoye

Yes, so moving over to Mexico and archaeologists have been looking at some pottery jars that are about 2000 years old found at this an archaeological site there. They found traces of chilli peppers, so capsicum on the inside of these jars. We know that chillies come from Mesoamerica; we know that they were domesticated thousands of years ago. But this is really the first direct evidence they found of chilli being used in these kinds of cooking pots. And another interesting thing is they were found in jars with a spout which would have been used to hold liquids. So, what they are actually looking for was cocoa, because they know they used to drink cocoa, but what they found was chilli. So I suppose you can take from this that they were either making a very hot spicy drink or actually making a chilli sauce to pour on their meals and they speculate this might have been used in rituals and feasts associated with those rituals because these pots were found in ceremonial places.

Interviewee – Emily James

So, they were making a kind of a chilli hot chocolate?

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

Weirdly, that’s the sort of thing they were looking for. What they thought was because the cocoa they would have used to make the drinks would have been quite bitter, they thought that maybe they would put some chilli in that to improve the taste, goes for the whole chilli-chocolate and thing. But, oddly they didn’t find any traces of cocoa at all. They just found traces of chilli on the pot that they looked out. So, it does suggest either just a chilli-based drink or chilli sauce.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

How does that fit in with the time line of chilli use internationally as well as what we’ve already discovered about the use of chillies?

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

So what we’ve already found is from about, maybe about 6000 years ago, fossils of chillies that we take to be domestically grown chillies and these fossils found near sites where we also find cooking utensils and pots and things. So, from that we can take that they were probably using chillies and eating chillies. Another thing was that this finding actually predates the next earliest findings so that these findings are about a thousand years older than any previous kind of evidence of chillies used in cooking. So, I guess the main take home is that perhaps these spicy chillies were used to flavour food a lot earlier than we would have thought.

Interviewee – Emily James

Well, we also had a similar story last year where we found cooking pots that contained garlic mustard.

Interviewee - Emma Stoye

Yes! So that was earlier this year, so that was in Europe.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

It was in the Baltics, somewhere in the Baltics, wasn’t it?

Interviewee – Emma Stoye

Yes. So they found little micro fossils of garlic mustard seeds within the residue on the pots of they were using and they also analyzed some of the lipids and found that it was probably used to flavour fish and that was as older still, that was about 6000 years ago.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So the stereotypes aren’t new, we’ve got the Europeans dining on fish-based cuisine, and we’ve got the Mexicans eating chilli.

Interviewee – Emma Stoye

Yes. So obviously that particular spicing up your food, that particularly culinary tradition has a long history, it’s a lot older than first thought.

(20:26 - Crystal clear)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Certainly popular on my plate too. Thank you to Emma Stoye. You are listening to the Chemistry World podcast. I am Chris Smith and still to come, new drugs for hepatitis C and a drug that can mimic the effects of alcohol and then potentially be reversed with another pill. But before that, 2014 is the International Year of Crystallography and it marks the centenary of the discovery of x-ray diffraction and also the 400 or so years since Kepler’s discovery of the symmetry of ice crystals. From the University of Oxford, Mike Glazer.

Interviewee - Mike Glazer

2014 is important because it marks 100 years of the Noble Prize of a gentleman called Max von Laue, who earlier in 1912 had discovered that if you shine x-rays at a crystal, the x-ray beams are diffracted, in other words scattered in different directions on to a film. This answered a question that had been puzzling people: were x-rays consisting of particles or waves? Laue’s experiment seemed to show that x-rays had to be waves. William Henry Bragg learned about Laue’s experiment but he thought x-rays were particles and so he set about with Lawrence Bragg, who just graduated in Cambridge, to do experiments to show in fact, Laue’s experiments was actually do with particles rather than waves. But the experiments failed and it was the young Lawrence Bragg at the age of 22 who realized that he could explain these patterns in terms of waves if we treat the problems as reflection from planes with interference of the outgoing rays. He produced a formula which contained three parameters: wave length, spacing between the planes and angle; and you only get diffraction if all of these quantities fit that equation.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And of course the other benefit of him thinking of it that way meant that the fact they were using a mixture of different colours for want of a better phrase, of x-rays would have actually not been a problem?

Interviewee - Mike Glazer

That’s right, and in fact Laue persisted right until 1913 in the belief that if you have a white beam of x-rays, a continuum of x-rays you would fog the whole film. He hadn’t quite understood quite Bragg’s formula and the way that it worked. And the other thing that Lawrence Brag’s did was he realized, if you took the molecules, think of a crystal of zinc sulphide as a molecule and put it not only on the corners of cube but also on the centres of each face, you could then explain all of the spots on Laue’s photograph seen with a white beam of x-rays and that particular structure. And so this was the beginning of realizing you could use these patterns to get towards solving the crystal structure.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So when did people begin to realize that there were multiple potential crystal structures like body centred cubic or face centred cubic. When did that realization kick in?

Interviewee - Mike Glazer

Well, it goes back actually way before x-ray diffraction was discovered, there were various theories to do with the crystal structures. Way back in fact to people like Kepler, who were looking at the packing of spheres that arose from cannon balls on the deck of a ship instead of rolling it around, how do you pack cannon balls together so that they’re stable and he came up with a face centred array which is in fact the same thing as was used in zinc sulphide.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So why did, given that historical knowledge. Why did these early guys, and Laue in particular, overlook that?

Interviewee - Mike Glazer

Well it was all theory, so until they were actually proven by x-ray diffraction everything was theory. And there were a number of people who had produced all kinds of different models, but Laue didn’t know anything about crystals. He had been to a crystal course. But I think he fell asleep and he really didn’t understand it. So he lost out from that point of view. Whereas Bragg the ear of people like William Pope in Cambridge, who were experts on the theories of crystal structures but again remember, they didn’t know for sure what these crystal structures were. Even the existence of atoms was a question mark at that time. So it was really with the advent of x-ray diffraction the realization from these patterns you could work back to an actual crystal structure and see where the atoms are that you have realized that atoms really do exist and that you could solve structures.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And of course from there, then they went on and others, since to solve some really fundamental things and this is now a mainstay of working out what the stuff we make and we use and we experiment on is made of.

Interviewee - Mike Glazer

Yes, the great advance actually immediately after the young Bragg’s discovery was that he worked with his father who devised what’s called the ionization spectrometer which is the father of the modern diffractometer that crystallographers use all over the world today. And that enabled them to not only observe the diffraction pattern but also can measure the intensities of all the spots. And you need those intensities if you really want to work back to the positions of an atom in a crystal structure. So the first crystal structure that was determined was in the alkali halides. Sodium chloride being the obvious one and then immediately following that they structured diamond and then they got on to more and more complex structures all the way through 1913 into 1914 when it was interrupted by the First World War. 1914 Nobel prize was awarded to Laue which was 100 years ago this year and the following year incidentally father and son, the two Braggs shared the Nobel prize in physics and they are the only father and son team to share a Nobel prize and Lawrence Bragg himself at the age of 25 remains the youngest Nobel prize winner ever.

(26:28 - New wave of hepatitis C drugs hits US shore)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Mike Glazer, who is the Emeritus Professor of Physics at Oxford University. One thing that crystallography has almost undoubtedly helped to achieve is the slew of new drugs in the pipeline for hepatitis C and Phillip has got an update on some of the newest contenders awaiting clinical approval.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

In the last couple of weeks two new drugs for hepatitis C have been approved in the US and one of those at least is very close to being approved in Europe. And then there is a whole set of drugs from other companies that are only just behind that in the regulatory and clinical trials process. So within the next year or two there’s going to be several new drugs which have significant advantages over the current therapies and the biggest advantage there is getting rid of the requirement to use interferon at the same time. So you’re taking these antiviral drugs but at the same time you need to have a weekly injection of interferon which is the immune system’s own way of dealing with viruses. It’s the thing that makes you feel really terrible when you have a cold or really bad cold. So you can imagine that the side effects of that mean people tend to dislike being treated for hepatitis, they tend to quit their therapies relatively early.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So you’re saying that the existing drug regimens need interferon to be added. That makes people feel awful and ghastly, so these new agents which don’t need interferon at the same time should be associated with better compliance, better tolerance on the side of the people who have to use them.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes, absolutely, and as well they have better performance in terms of getting rid of the virus as well. The drug from Gilead, which is called sofosbuvir can - for some types of the virus - be taken completely without any interferon at all. Unfortunately there are about eight different types of hepatitis C, so some of them it’s not quite as effective for but it still allows you to shorten the length of time by about half, so you’re taking the interferon for a lot less time. It’s a lot easier to deal with that side effect burden.

Interviewee - Emily James

So, does it mean that the new drugs are big in certain places?

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Well yes. The distribution of the genotypes of hepatitis C is quite non-uniform around the world. So Japan for example has a particularly high prevalence of one genotype which is particularly well addressed by a drug that Bristol-Myers Squibb is developing which is a combination of daclatasvir and asunaprevir. So the Bristol-Myers Squibb has applied for regulatory approval in Japan, it’s not approved yet, but they’ve shown with their clinical trials that it’s particularly good against that genotype which is why they’re going over there rather than perhaps trying to launch in the US or Europe to start with.

Interviewee – Emma Stoye

There might be some patent issues, I can imagine.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Well yes. There is a lawyer activist group in the US called I-MAK and they are trying to persuade the Indian patent office not to give Gilead a patent on their drug. So they’re arguing that the drug is no longer new, it’s been out for a while. It’s known about, so it shouldn’t be patented in India and the implication of that is that, it may well end up that Indian companies can then produce generic versions of those drugs without any issues and market them in places where Gilead’s patents don’t apply.

Interviewee – Emma Stoye

So it’s more beneficial for those actually suffering from hepatitis C.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Oh yes. It’s easy to say that, but just playing devils’ advocate for a minute, who pays for Gilead to invent these molecules in the first place? Because drugs do not come cheap, it’s £10 billion to make any new agent, isn’t it? So if we end up with lots of countries just consuming them for free and the company doesn’t make its money back, then there is no new money to invest in the drug pipeline.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Exactly, and this is an ongoing issue within the pharmaceutical industry particularly in countries like India, which have strong arguments in some cases for saying, we can’t afford to pay western prices for medicines, so there are various arguments that they have in terms of intellectual property to try and make it easier for their generics industry to make drugs more cheaply.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

It sounds like holding the world to ransom, though. I mean this is the same country that half the population don’t have a toilet but they nonetheless sent a probe to Mars earlier in the year.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Yes, absolutely and you could argue, for example, that Gilead will make its money from sales in the US and in Europe and shouldn’t be too bothered about India, but there is a massive population of patients in India and If Gilead were to have the patent and then they would be making a lot more money there as well.

(31:03 - The morning after the night before)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Well, let’s talk about another very popular drug which has been around for donkey’s years, longer than we have, that’s for sure: Alcohol. Obviously lots of side effects are associated with that, but David Nutt actually is quite a strong proponent of an agent which has all the effects of alcohol but it is potentially reversible and doesn’t have the damaging effects and it’s being dubbed synthehol, I am looking forward to trying some of this!

Interviewee - Emily James

Well. You might have to wait quite a long time.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Really, Why?

Interviewee - Emily James

There are quite a few issues relating to getting it through clinical trials and actually funding the research.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

I guess the point is that if you are trying to develop this from a public health point of view, then the people who are going to be paying for it - if you’re trying to market it as a treatment for alcoholism for example - then if it is going to be available on the NHS, the NHS is going to want evidence that it is effective. On the other side, if you are going to try and market it as a recreational drug, we now have laws certainly in the UK and in the US, that cover legal high molecules, so any molecule, any drug that has potential to be abused can be effectively made illegal temporarily until it’s proven that it is safe. So you still have the same burden of proving that these molecules are safe before they’re allowed on to the free market.

Interviewee - Emily James

I think one of the main issues for me is why would you take this tablet in the first place?

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Well, to get drunk, presumably...

Interviewee - Emily James

Is the only reason that you drink alcohol to get intoxicated? What if you like the taste of beer or cider…

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Unlike cigarettes for example, you smoke a cigarette almost entirely for the nicotine hit whereas you might drink beer more perhaps for the other compounds within the beer the flavouring, the bitterness and those characteristics flavours.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So where do people stand on this synthehol business and do we think this is going to actually really come to flourishing?

Interviewee - Emily James

Well, one of the issues I had when I first heard about it was the kind of adverse waves the drug actually might be used, but this also been proposed that they could create an antidote to the drug as well. So there could be a way out of it, but I could only see the negative sides.

Interviewee - Phillip Broadwith

Mind you. If there is an antidote and you are designated driver, all you need is to pop a couple of pills and you are sober enough to drive everyone else home.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

It’s true. I wonder where this is going to go. Well, I’ll raise a glass for that one, though we’ve to wait a little while. Before, we finish though, some exciting news Emily from you.

(33:42 - Chemistry World science communication competition 2013)

Interviewee - Emily James

So this is something for all of the students and early career science researchers out there and that’s the Chemistry World science communication competition. This is an opportunity for those of you that want to get your communication out there to have a chance to get published in Chemistry World and also win some prize money as well and also have an opportunity to go on a mission out to Sweden to visit some of the labs of AkzoNobel and Procter & Gamble and then write a nice story for Chemistry World about that again.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Who is it open to and how do you enter?

Interviewee - Emily James

So this is open to anyone basically that doesn’t have any published experience of science writing and the deadline is the end of January, so 31st January. And basically we want you to either write us a story or send us a storyboard, a multimedia storyboard on the topic of chemistry and openness in science.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So good luck. Thank you to Chemistry Worlders, Phillip Broadwith, Emma Stoye and Emily James and our guest contributors Phil Ball and Mike Glazer. This program was produced by Meera Senthilingham and by me Chris Smith. We are from thenakedscientists.com and we will be back next month with more reactions to the world’s chemical breakthroughs. Until then though, happy New Year once again and good bye.

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