Thursday, April 30, 2009

This isn't even peer-reviewed

While my post from this morning wasn't the most flattering of peer-reviewed research, it sure beats this: Merck published a fake journal with some help from Elsevier (link to The Scientist - free registration required). The "journal" was not surprisingly loaded with articles supportive of Merck's products. Activities like these keep making it more difficult for the pharma industry to be seen in any positive light whatsoever.

Updated 5/5: Both the Excimer (Carbon Based Curiosities) and the Chemistry Blog have more details on the matter.

Skip the ER for potential heart attacks and find a spectroscopist instead

This is a neat and unusal use for mid-IR spectrscopy: differentiation between heart attacks and simple chest pain. Given the ubiquity of IR machines and the ease with which anyone can run one, this could be an important new find.

Now if I can just get the IR guys at work here to start running this test, we could be billing the insurance companies for some big bucks!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's "Peer Reviewed", so It's gotta be right.

The FDA has always taken the attitude of regulating drugs and devices and not the practice of medicine - i.e., doctors can do whatever they want with the controlled materials, even if the product is intended in other ways. I believe cosmetic botox injections started this way. They were originally intended for use in stilling muscles during surgery, but someone got the bright idea that it would be great for removing wrinkles in the face. The drug was not labeled by the manufacturer for this application and it was not legal for the manufacturer to sell it for cosmetic application - the doctor assumed all the risk. This is known as "off-label" useage. That has now changed as the FDA has approved this use of the toxin as well.

But now the regulations in the area are starting to change. It's now permissible for companies to pass out reprints of research articles that studied off-label uses of drugs.

From the FDA document: "A scientific or medical journal article that is distributed should:
  • be published by an organization that has an editorial board that uses experts who have demonstrated expertise in the subject of the article under review by the organization and who are independent of the organization to review and objectively select, reject, or provide comments about proposed articles; and that has a publicly stated policy, to which the organization adheres, of full disclosure of any conflict of interest or biases for all authors, contributors, or editors associated with the journal or organization;

  • be peer-reviewed and published in accordance with the peer-review procedures of the organization; and

  • not be in the form of a special supplement or publication that has been funded in whole or in part by one or more of the manufacturers of the product that is the subject of the article"

So now the FDA is making the assumption that if it is peer-reviewed, it's correct. As if peer-reviewers are short on time (I'm always pressed for time when asked to complete a review, they never seem to come during slow times), ever wrong (I don't think I am, but fortunately I'm not making life-and-death decisions to approve a polymer chemistry paper), or politically connected (I'm too much of a loner for that game). Sure, the papers are already out there, but to use them for promotion is not the original intent of the article (or maybe it is depending on who funded it) but there is no obligation to not cherry pick the articles and only pass out the good results.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More Science Funding

It obviously is still talk and yet to happen, but Obama's speech yesterday to the NAS gives hope for more investment in science research.

I've never understood conservative opposition to scientific research. Look past the actual subject of the research - an extremely difficult request I know, as the subjects make for endless political hay on wasteful government spending - and look at the additional consequences of the work. 90+% of the grad students and post-docs are going to work in industry making nice, taxable salaries, much higher than what they would have made without the advanced degrees. And if the research is actually useful in the end, then it's even that much more of a win.

The speech is a quick read, but worthwhile.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Double-Edged Sword of UV Light

With a little bit of luck, I might working on a UV-curing project soon, something I really get giddy about. I hope that I never lose the awe of seeing a useless low viscosity mix of chemicals turn into a hard polymer after just a few seconds exposure to UV light. Skip all those thermal/emulsion/suspension/bulk/ polymerizations with the long induction and gelation times. Pump those electrons into an excited state with those absorbed photons and let the good times roll. UV curing is instant gratification.

And yet UV light is also an endless source of degradation. All those excited electrons can go the other way and start chewing up the polymer's backbone, leading to discoloration (to all colors of the rainbow - my favorite being the "pinking" that occurs in white PVC), chalking and eventually failure. Despite the branching reactions that often occur (leading to an ever increasing degradation rate), the reaction occurs painfully slowly.

In both cases, the reactions start with the photon being absorbed and exciting an electron to a reactive state. It's just a question of which way the electron will fall. I have the good fortune in my current job to work both sides of the slope.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What ever happened to...Starlite?

Do you remember Starlite, the ultraplastic that was bombproof?. Not your typical incendary bomb, but NUCLEAR bomb proof? The Telegraph had an article last week updating things.

In a nutshell, the product still has gone nowhere. The guy is rightfully paranoid of losing the composition, and given the leaps and bounds in analytical capability over the last 20 years, it would be pretty easy to understand the chemistry and physics of it. He hasn't patented it, and given European absolute novelty laws, will be unable to now. But the article strongly implies that the paranoia has cost him ecnomic success. There's a lot of hype in his talk, and given the lack of formal training in the sciences (he's a former hairdresser), the claims are that much more dubious, but still there is enough data that it seems as if something is trying to get out. I'm just not sure what.

Defrosting Food Safely

I've been hanging onto this link for years and ran across it again although I've been putting the information in practice for nearly a decade now.

In my last position at a large Minnesota-based Mining and Manufacturing company that I won't name, I was in the food microbiology products area - a lonely little chemist in a microbiology patch so to speak. The group made products that helped in quantifying the number and types of microbles that were making a meal of your meal before you did. My personal job was developing a label that would change color when refrigerated food was at the end of it's shelf-life. This involved monitoring both the time and temperture and performing a nonlinear integration. But that's a story for another day. The point here was that the group knew quite a bit about food safety, so that's why this I know of this paper, which addresses the classic question: should I thaw frozen meat in the fridge or on the counter top?

The correct answer is the counter top, even though the popular press (supported by misinformation from the FDA) uses the "common sense" approach and says use the fridge. Too bad the data doesn't support that.

I've met Pete Snyder and he is an impressive guy - hardnosed and no-nonsense when it comes to regulation and doing the right thing as opposed to trusting in the regulations.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A bumper crop of Professors

I recently renewed a contact with a guy who used to be in the same research group as me. He is now a professor at a pretty prestigious school. I started looking at other former memebers of the research group and found that 4 other contemporaries of mine are also professors. There may well be others that I've lost track of as they've returned overseas.

Now consider these facts: 1) the number of professorships in engineering is not increasing at any great clip 2) a professor needs over the coarse of his/her entire career to only have one student become a professor as to ensure that the field doesn't shrink. It would then seem that my advisor turning out 5 professors within 5 years is, if not a record, pretty impressive. Can anybody top that?

Johny, Stop Playing with your Food!

I could see doing this just a few years ago, (having only recently discovered a locally-produced bacon that is worth eating).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Self-Healing Polymers

Self Healing Polymers and Coatings are beginning to pick up speed. Not only are there a number of papers (this one by Braun being the latest) , but there are multiple academic groups (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) specializing in the research, a couple of patents (1 and 2) using the materials.

The most common thread in all these materials is that there is a reactive system encapsulated within a microbead, and these beads are spread throughout the rest of the polymer matrix. When the matrix is fractured, the beads adjacent to the break are fractured, leaking out their reactive material which then (ideally) fills the void and sets up as a solid.

The real challenge behind the hype is achieving a good bond between the matrix and the reacted material. Given the extremely uncommon compatibility of binary polymers systems, such a bond is unlikely. And even in systems that are compatible, obtained an interdiffused interface is impossible given the solid nature of the matrix.

If all you seek is a protective coating, that might be enough for a while, but eventually the environment will succeed in finding the weak spot and exploiting it. That's just the way that Mother Nature works.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Hydrogels vs. Maggots

Crosslinked polymers swollen in water (i.e., hydrogels) were recently challenged to a duel by larval Lucilia sericata (green bottle fly maggots) to see who could heal leg ulcers faster. Chemistry vs. Biology. I love it.

But in the end it was a tie. No difference in the end result, but there were some differences along the way (such as the pain that the lavae caused). It was also interesting that there was a low incidence of MRSA (methicillin resistant sthapholoccus aureous, a "super bug") infections.

Don't worry, there are no pictures of maggot infested wounds.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Vinyl flooring, autism and statistics

So now there are thoughts that vinyl flooring causes autism. I really like this aspect of the study: "The researchers relied on questionnaires and did not measure any chemicals in the homes, which limits the reliability of the findings because they do not know for certain that the children were exposed to phthalates." Despite the authors' own caveats (calling it "far from conclusive..."), this report, as with most environmental health reports is an endless source of frustration to me. So many unexamined variables, so few comparisons to other studies, so little prediction and follow-up studies.

Overriding all of this is the standard significance test of P = 0.05. This means that even in the best statistical designs, there is a 5% chance that you are wrong in your conclusions. Not because you did something wrong or because someone has a political agenda opposing the results or ... but because statistical results are just that - statistical, and 1 out of 20 times you're going to end up rolling snake eyes.

Think about that next time you pick up a medical journal with 20 different studies in it.

Some inklings of good news - but what is it?

The CEO of SABIC is a little bit up-beat, but doesn't say why. (video)
I wish I knew. Certainly the plastics industry in the long-term is looking fine, but most people right now have massive myopia. i.e., "When's the recovery going to start?"

SABIC is largely state-owned, so one would at first think that that would make them immune to the massive myopia of Wall Street where you're only as good as your last monthly-earnings guidance (balanced against the high-society-whispers of company analysts) and thus less prone to the "happy talk" needed to continually sell the company. The stock can tank, but no vultures cannot descend on the carcass unless the state decides to throw in the towel.

Stimulus Bill Back Fires - Bans All Plastics

April 1, 2009
Washington D.C.

The recently passed economic stimulus package was found to have some unexpected consequences. A congressional intern discovered yesterday that an obscure section of the law actually bans all use of plastics.

The intern, Goodfer Nothing, who made this discovery said "I was reading the entire bill as part of a dare. Since no one else had ever read the whole thing, me and some other interns had a contest going to see who could read the whole thing first. I also found that it was good for some insomnia."

The section of the bill banning all plastics was an amendment submitted by Rep. Re Hensible. When I caught up with the Congressman, he stated "Well as I recall, I think I wanted the amendment to say that we would ban all plastic, but I really meant 'plastic money', you know, credit cards. But it was late at night and we were tired and at a loss for words, so I guess we never changed it. Oh well. Now that I think about it, banning all plastics isn't such a bad idea after all. I kinda like it."

Major plastics producers were unavailable for comment as current ownership of any company changes faster than a game of three-card Monte, making it impossible to identify appropriate personnel to contact.