It’s rare for politicians to agree on anything, as this week’s local council and European elections have once again demonstrated. And with a general election looming next year, tensions are likely to be ratcheted up even higher. But one thing that there does appear to be consensus on – in the UK at least – is the need for greater effort to boost agricultural productivity – the amount of food we produce per hectare of available land.
As recent articles in C&I have highlighted, with an estimated 9bn people on the planet by the year 2050 the amount of food we produce will need to more than double in order to meet the increased demand. Yet current rates of agricultural productivity growth are well below the level needed.
At the annual The Crop Protection Association (CPA) Convention this week, Sir James Paice MP (Conservative), Huw Irranca-Davies MP (Labour) and David Heath MP (Liberal Democrat) were each invited to outline the policies and approach they believe the next government should take to support productive agriculture in the UK and to meet the challenges of food security in the coming decades. Speaking at the meeting CPA ceo Nick von Westenholz commented: ‘With under a year to go before the next General Election, it was encouraging to hear MPs from across the political spectrum all agree that the next UK government should work to boost domestic agricultural productivity.’
Outside of the UK, however, the CPA criticised European politicians for a ‘lack of awareness’ of the problem and pointed out that more work needed to be done to engage with EU institutions and their European counterparts to make sure food and farming policy is based on sound science, fosters innovation and protects farmers’ competitiveness. ‘It’s a message farmers and the wider agricultural sector need to continually press home with our MPs and MEPs as a matter of urgency,’ according to the CPA.
One area where EU policy-makers came in for particular censure was for their ‘overly precautious’ approach to crop protection technologies, according to the CPA. It argues that this has meant that many of the key products farmers rely on are, or are at risk of, being taken off the market, ‘even though they have been proven to be safe and are subject to one of the most stringent approvals processes in the world’.
The association also has a stark warning about the dangers of failing to tackle the food security problem. If the message fails to be heard, it says that the ‘implications for farming and food security could be devastating’.
Cath O’Driscoll, Deputy editor
A change in the focus of the biopolymer sector means that producers and marketers are now emphasising the whole value proposition for their products rather than just their renewable aspect, if speakers and delegates in Philadelphia, US, at this week’s Biopolymer symposium and the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology are to be believed.
The new approach resembles that used for speciality chemicals in focusing on meeting customer needs for products with at least equal performance, compared with conventional fossil-based polymers, but preferably with different and new properties that offer new application possibilities. The added bonus is, of course, that the products are also environmentally advantageous as a result of their sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the biomass feedstocks, and can be said to follow the principles of green chemistry, thereby making a major contribution to sustainability.
However, all is not plain sailing for the sector, which feels that it is unfairly treated in terms of being required to leap through additional hoops, compared with fossil-based polymers, as a result of its being bio-based. The hoops are all about requirements for certification, for example, for the renewable nature of the feedstock, the renewable carbon content of the final polymer product and the recyclability or composting potential of the final product produced using the polymer.
There is, of course, no such requirement for such certification of fossil-based polymers – no certification of the oil feedstock, or for the carbon content of the polymer, or even for the end-of-life disposal of the final product produced from the resulting polymer.
Now many in the biopolymer feel that this is an unacceptable burden on the development of the sector, while others see this as an advantage in providing their customers with a major advantage in terms of meeting their sustainability goals.
Rather than being seen as separate from fossil-based polymers, however, many involved in the biopolymer sector believe that their products will only be able to be considered fully accepted when there will no longer be a need for separate conferences covering biobased and fossil-based polymers.
Only time will tell, of course, but the renewable nature of biopolymers, as well as bio-based chemicals in general, has got to be beneficial for all of us.
Neil Eisberg - Editor
Confirmation of Pfizer’s £63bn hostile bid for the UK drug firm AstraZeneca came just too late for inclusion in the May issue of C&I – which does have a story about the other UK pharma major GSK’s asset swap with Novartis, and US-based Eli Lilly’s acquisition of another Novartis business, in this case animal health. The mega deals have returned to Big Pharma and it is certainly a busy time for the consultants, bankers, managements and all the other ‘hangers-on’ that are usually involved!
The headlines about the possible Pfizer/AstraZeneca deal are full of comments from politicians of all persuasions, consultants, trade unionists and shareholders, but as with any of these major deals, the last people to have a voice are the employees – after all what do they matter when big financial deals are involved?
As we all know they are the people who actually do the work, that make the discoveries and turn ideas into reality, thereby giving corporations products to sell and build their profits to provide the cash to make these deals.
The only place in the media that I have seen anything about AstraZeneca’s employees has been in the Cambridge Post, the local newspaper covering the area where AstraZeneca’s new R&D centre is planned. And that report is all about the concerns of Astra’s employees who are wondering whether they should purchase new homes in the area given the ongoing uncertainty.
Astra’s management has been particularly bullish about the company’s future as an independent entity, a great improvement over its situation just a year ago, but will this be enough to convince shareholders not to sell, after all they are only interested in their return on their investment.
Meanwhile, many observers are saying that Pfizer’s latest quarterly figures show exactly why it are so keen to add new products to their portfolio – like many Big Pharma companies, its cupboard is somewhat bare, and like other companies in its situation acquisition could be a quick fix. And, again like other companies in their situation, they have split the company into three separate businesses – the usual consultant’s approach for a centralised company!
The problem is that such ‘quick fixes’ often do not deliver on expectations, but the cost is a loss of skilled researchers, who in many recent cases, however, have been snapped up by contract manufacturers and research companies. The irony is that many of those discarded experts then end up advising their previous Big Pharma employers who suddenly discover that they don’t now have the up-to-date expertise required in today’s competitive and combative environment.
Other researchers start up their own companies and then beat their former slow-footed employers to new products and processes – the irony here of course is these start-ups then find themselves short of resources, usually cash, and are forced to form collaborations with Big Pharma and often end up being swallowed up again by their former employers or their competitors.
And then we have the politicians who see these mega deals as opportunities to attack the policies of their rivals or pose as saviours of jobs and the UK’s knowledge base.
What is certain is that the headlines will continue, and people’s lives will be put on hold until someone cracks, probably a major shareholder who sees the gleam of the money more than the future of the company. It is certainly a funny old world – unless you happen to be one of the affected employees!
First came antibacterial socks, guaranteed to combat foot odour. Now it appears that silver based technology is being incorporated in a new range of men’s underwear. Wireless Armour is due to go on sale any day and is claimed by developers to protect wearers from the potentially harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation emitted from everyday wireless devices such as laptop computers and mobile phones.
‘Wireless Armour is designed to protect the health of a generation glued to their mobile phones,’ according to Joseph Perkins, the founder of the company of the same name. ‘[The] fabric blocks 99.9% of harmful radiation, thus making the garments an extremely effective form of protection.’ And it is also claimed as antibacterial and shape holding - and can be laundered in a conventional washing machine.
The technology has been named as one of Richard Branson’s Top 10 Back of the Envelope ideas and picked as a contender for the Everline Future 50 most disruptive new businesses list.
At the same time that Wireless Armour is being readied for deployment, as reported in recent issues of C&I researchers elsewhere are developing technology to incorporate electronic circuitry into our clothes (April 2013, page 20). Fashion technology company CuteCircuit, for example, has designed the Hug shirt, which gives the wearer the physical sensation of being hugged; and the Kinetic dress where movement makes the black dress light up with a blue-circle pattern that moves like a ‘halo’ around the wearer. Further into the future, scientists are also creating transient biodegradable electronics that are biocompatible with human skin (C&I, 2014, 3, 14).
As Wireless Armour itself concedes, there is as yet no conclusive link between cancer and wireless radiation. The health benefits of putting silver particles into garments are controversial – and could destroy beneficial bacteria along with the undesirable ones. Clearly, a lot more research is needed. A more proven way to reduce cancer risks, meanwhile, is to eat more veg and fruit.
None of this appears to worry Wireless Armour, which reports ‘big plans for the future’ with a woman’s bra to add to the range now in development.
Cath O'Driscoll – Deputy editor
Just when you thought there were no more Big Pharma deals to be done, in the UK newspaper The Sunday Times over the Easter weekend, in an unconfirmed news story, Pfizer was reported to be bidding to acquire AstraZeneca. And then GSK and Novartis pull their own rabbit out of the hat! But not only that, Eli Lilly gets in on the act as well!
Not unexpectedly, in a separate transaction, Novartis is handing over its animal health business to Lilly for $5,.4bn – a divestment that has been on the radar screens of pharma watchers for a number of months.
But as for the rest of the changes, pharma watchers have been taken a little unawares despite all the restructuring that has been announced by Novartis in recent months by a series of swap, sell and partnership deals with GSK.
Firstly, Novartis OTC and GSK Consumer Healthcare are pooling their businesses to create a joint venture consumer healthcare business, with revenues of £6.5bn. GSK will be the controlling partner, with Novartis owning a 36.5% share, with four out of eleven board places and minority rights and exit rights at a pre-defined, market-based pricing mechanism.
Novartis is also divesting its vaccines business, excluding its flu vaccine activities that are to be sold separately, to GSK for $7.1bn, while GSK is divesting its currently marketed oncology products, R&D activities and rights to its AKT inhibitor, together with commercialisation partner rights for future products, to Novartis for $16bn. GSK will, however, continue oncology R&D into new treatments in cancer immunotherapy, epigenetics and tumour environment.
Novartis ceo, Joseph Jimenez, described the transactions as marking ‘a transformational moment’, focusing the company on ‘leading businesses with innovation power and global scale. They also improve our financial strength, and are expected to add to our growth rates and margins immediately.’
GSK’s ceo Andrew Whitty said: ‘This proposed 3-part transaction accelerates our strategy to generate sustainable, broadly sourced sales growth and improve long-term earnings. Opportunities to build greater scale and combine high quality assets in vaccines and consumer healthcare are scarce. With this transaction we will substantially strengthen two of our core businesses and create significant new options to increase value for our shareholders.’
So we have seen US Big Pharma go through this process, and now Europe has joined in, but while there are obvious advantages in terms of scale, does this change the overall situation that Big Pharma finds itself in with gaps in pipelines and the need to rely on small entrepreneurial biotech and other research based companies?
It remains to be seen what happens next!
Neil Eisberg – Editor
On my way to a meeting in London’s Kensington last week, I might have imagined I was somewhere in Asia. So shrouded in smog was the area that many of the borough’s residents had resorted to wearing face masks. The reason, according to national newspaper reports, was a blast of Saharan dust and emissions from continental Europe blown our way – so bad, indeed, that it stopped the PM from taking his morning jog in Hyde Park.
As a feature on page 13 of the next (May) issue of C&I points out, however, London still has a long way to go before it catches up with China’s pollution record. Air quality measurements taken at the end of February 2014 showed Beijing at an index level 517, compared with 207 for New Delhi, 34 for New York and 30 for London, says a report by World Review (WR).
In the evening of 12 January, the WR report notes that Beijing reached 755, 30 times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) safety limit of 25 over a 24-hour period.
Thankfully, the Saharan dust was dispersed from our own streets in a matter of days, and nor does it pose a serious health hazard compared with the finer particles, for example, from diesel engines, which travel deep into the lungs, according to a release by UK company Air Monitors. Even so, the London smog episode shows how much work still needs to be done to tackle air quality problems in the UK and the importance of live access to air quality data, says Air Monitors’ MD Jim Mills. ‘The problem with solving air quality problems is that death certificates never say “Died from pollution” so the statistics that 29,000 premature UK deaths as a result pass largely unnoticed because the “cause of death is usually a heart attack, a stroke or some other cardiovascular ailment,’ the company points out in a release. Yet the fact is that this figure exceeds those for obesity, alcohol and road traffic accidents.
In China, by comparison, in 2010 pollution was reported to have caused the premature deaths of 1.2m and reduced life expectancy by 5.5 years. Worryingly, WR also refers to a study at China’s Agricultural University that suggests if smog persists it could even impede photosynthesis and threaten food supplies.
London may not yet be as polluted Beijing, but as numbers of cars, people and smokers on our own streets expand, the Sahara dust episode is a timely reminder of how urgently we need to find and develop better technologies to curb the attendant pollution problems.
Shale gas fracking in the US has slashed energy prices and led to a $100bn boom in petrochemicals investment. But what of the prospects for fracking here in the UK? The UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA) report, Shale gas: the facts, sets out some of the issues and attempts to lay to rest some of the concerns. And a recently updated assessment of the UK’s Bowland shale reserves by the British Geological Survey, for example, suggests there are reserves of 1300 trillion cubic feet – at ten times the depth of any US shale reserves, the report points out. That’s enough gas to supply the country for 40 years.
With UK energy regulator Ofgem recently predicting that spare electricity generating margins could fall to 2% by the middle of the decade as more coal fired power stations close, locally sourced shale gas would improve energy security and lessen the risk of high and volatile prices due to uncertainty about gas imports. The latter now represent almost half of UK gas consumption, the CIA report notes – and, as the ongoing problems in the Ukraine highlight, continued supply is by no means assured.
While any energy technology will inevitably have drawbacks, fracking takes place at depths where it would be ‘highly unlikely’ to impact on aquifers, the report authors say. While acknowledging that it requires a lot of water to open fissures in shale to release the gas, they point out that the 10-30m litres needed for each well is ‘approximately the same as the amount used to water a golf course for a month’. Meanwhile, the recent earth tremors caused by fracking activity in Blackpool are dismissed as ‘minor’ and on a par with other natural seismic activity.
Speaking at a CIA chemical writers’ dinner last week, Ineos director Tom Crotty commented: ‘Shale gas is a no brainer, we must have it.’ While we will see a contraction in the UK chemicals industry in coming years, regardless of shale gas, Crotty says that the consequences will be far more serious and could spell the sector’s demise if Europe does not exploit its shale gas reserves. Added to this are Europe’s burdensome climate change regulations, he says. If EU chemical firms cease trading, Crotty warns this could ‘defeat the objective’ as CO2 levels may well rise without access to clever chemistries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor
Meeting increasing demand means improving our resource productivity – dramatically – according to Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers. Writing in the McKinsey Quarterly (March 2014). Heck, a consulting professor at Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy, and Rogers, a McKinsey director in San Francisco, point out that the annual productivity improvement required to meet global demand over the period 2010-30 amounts to 1.3% GDP/t for materials in general; a 1.5% increase in food yield/hectare; 3.2% GDP/Btu in terms of energy; and 3.7% GDP/m3 for water.
They point out, however, that the heat-rate efficiency of the average coal-fired power station, still a major source of electricity in the US, has not significantly improved in more than 50 years, and automotive fuel efficiency improvements have consistently lagged behind productivity growth across the US economy.
‘Under-utilisation and chronic inefficiency cannot be solved by financial engineering or offshoring labour’, they write. ‘Something more fundamental; is required. We see such challenges as emblematic of an unprecedented opportunity to produce and use resources far more imaginatively and efficiently, revolutionising business and management in the process.’
They have looked back to 1776, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, pointing out that out of the three primary business inputs that Smith identified: labour, capital and land – or broadly any resource that can be produced or recovered, or disposed of as waste on land – the two industrial revolutions that have occurred so far have focused primarily on labour and capital, but neither focused on land and natural resources.
This is arguable, since the more recent industrial revolution focused on crude oil, and latterly gas, both natural resources extracted from the land, and sea. They are, however, supporters of the concept that the third industrial revolution involves IT, nanotechnology and biology, which they believe can yield substantial productivity increases. They also cite the achievement of high productivity growth in the developing world as offering the largest wealth-creation opportunity in a century.
‘Rather than settling for historic resource-productivity improvement rates of one to two percent/year, leaders must deliver productivity gains of 50% or so every few years,’ they believe, but this will require new management approaches.
They lay out five distinct approaches for business to capitalise on this revolution in a new book: Resource Revolution. These are substitution, replacing costly and or scarce materials with less scarce, cheaper and higher-performing alternatives; optimisation, by embedding software in resource-intensive industries to dramatically improve production are scarce resource utilisation; virtualisation, or moving processes out of the physical world; circularity, or finding value in finished products after their initial use; and waste elimination, through greater efficiency and redesigning products.
So nothing really new then – and the green chemistry movement already has most of these approaches covered. Perhaps the chemistry, the chemical industry and its customers are ahead of the game after all. What do you think?
What have Great apes, Orang-utans and the Giant Panda got in common with the elements indium, gallium, germanium and arsenic? The answer, of course, is that they are all endangered species. But while the problem of endangered animals has aroused huge amounts of public sympathy and concern, not to mention efforts to conserve and protect the affected species, the issue of endangered elements is virtually unknown among non-scientists. Now a new campaign launched this week at the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in Dallas, Texas, US, aims to raise awareness of the problem with the creation a novel colour coded version of the Periodic Table of the Endangered Elements.
Created by the ACS’ Green Chemistry Institute (GCI), elements highlighted in red are those whose availability poses a ‘serious threat in the next 100 years’, explained GCI’s David Constable, while those in orange, including platinum, rubidium and iridium, are under ‘rising threat from increased use’, and yet others in blue, such as selenium, phosphorus and cadmium, are ‘limited availability, future risk to supply’.
The biggest consumer of many of these threatened elements is the modern car, noted Karl Gschneidner of Ames Laboratory, Iowa State University, US, which not only contains Nd, Pd, Dy, Y, Eu, Tb and other rare species, but also requires yet more rare elements - such as Ce used to polish car windscreens – for its manufacture. Recycling of these elements from consumer products is not always practical as they are present in such tiny quantities, Gschneidner said; the energy needed for their separation is often higher than the energy required to mine and extract them from their underground ores. Instead what is needed, according to Constable, is to move the global economy towards ‘closed loop manufacturing technologies’ where process feedstocks are recycled and products reused.
Yet another strategy involves using nanotechnology to replace these rare elements with other more plentiful ones, said Jillian Burriak of Alberta State University, Canada, referring, for example, to recent work to replace the indium tin oxide used in flat screen displays and other electronic devices with metal nanowires derived from so-called ‘rock elements’, such as iron pyrite and oxides and zinc phosphide. Using elements at the nanoscale not only means using them in incredibly tiny quantities, Burriak noted, but also confers on them new and unusual properties that can make them valuable substitutes for rarer species.
The topic of element supply, meanwhile, is particularly relevant to the theme of this the 247th ACS meeting, which focuses on ‘Chemistry and Materials for Energy’, Burriak said. With world energy demand expected to double or even triple in the next few decades, new solar technologies especially are urgently needed to fill the shortfall, with nanotechnology expected to play a major role.
Meanwhile, if you want to support a good cause you could buy one of the GCI’s Tee-shirts like I did. It features an endangered Silverback ape on the front – with the message ‘We need our silver back!’ – and a copy of the Periodic Table of the Endangered Elements on the back.
Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor
The pace of scientific discovery cannot move fast enough for many people. And patients with life-threatening illnesses cannot be expected to ignore any potential lifeline that the global pharmaceutical industry can throw them. But they do not have the time to wait for all the trials and regulatory hurdles to be overcome. Ensuring the safety of our medicines is one thing, but should it be at the risk of denying patients a therapeutic lifeline?
A case in point has arisen in the US, where this week the case of a seven-year old boy suffering from cancer and now a life-threatening virus has finally prompted a change in how clinical trials can be arranged and authorised. The boy’s parents had discovered that a small biotech concern, Chimerix, based in Durham, South Carolina, has been engaged in Phase 2 clinical trials of an experimental therapy against lethal viral infections, brincidofovir, that was being developed with US government funding. Naturally they contacted the company and asked to be able to use the so far unapproved treatment.
The biotech was therefore caught between a rock and a hard place – whether it wanted to or not, it could not supply an unapproved drug that had not even completed its Phase 3 trials but was, at the same time, subjected to intense media attacks for denying it, with the ceo and staff members even receiving death threats.
Fortunately, the US Food & Drug Administration has found a way around the situation by allowing the treatment to be used in this case as a pilot study, with Phase 3 trials to follow at a later date, but this case throws up a major conundrum for the pharma industry, regulators and society.
While we all expect to have all our drugs complete appropriate clinical trials, regulatory approvals etc to meet the efficacy and safety concerns of all involved, the process can take too long, especially for patients for which the therapy concerned might just be their last hope. In the UK, for example, it can take a year or more for marketing approval to be granted by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA) even though all the necessary trials etc have been completed with satisfactory outcomes.
To overcome this particular hurdle, the UK government plans to introduce a Promising Innovative Medicine (PIM) designation and an Early Access to Medicines Scheme (EAMS). The EAMS aims to support access in the UK to unlicensed or off-label medicines in areas of unmet medical need. The PIM designation will provide an early indication that a product may be a possible candidate for the Early Access to Medicines Scheme. The MHRA will issue an EAMS opinion if the quality, safety and efficacy data provided in support of the application is sufficiently compelling for a positive benefit: risk balance and added clinical value, and the EAMS scheme will be complemented by the introduction of a new National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE) technology appraisal and NHS England Commissioning process.
As Steve Bates, ceo of the UK BioIndustry Association expressed it, the introduction of the PIM designation and the EAMS ‘shows the UK is committed to an "all hands on deck approach" to speedily progress promising innovative therapies to the patients that need them.’ However he warns that ‘as it is currently envisaged, without centrally funded reimbursement, the scheme runs the risk of being under-utilised’, undermining its attractiveness to UK SMEs and to global corporations choosing the UK as a location for their clinical trials.
‘To ensure that patients receive the next generation of breakthrough therapies in the UK, while supporting overarching industry objectives, under the EAMS companies will need to be reimbursed at an earlier stage in development at a price that recognises the uncertainty of the effectiveness of early stage products,’ he added. So this adds yet another dimension, this time economic, to the already complicated health and safety debate.
When suffering from a life-threatening disease, patients do not appreciate any obstacles that might stand in the way of them receiving a therapy that may save their lives. There is a balance that needs to be struck between health and safety in all aspects of our lives, but for such patients, where that balance falls is crucial. While small steps are being taken, this debate will continue to run and run.
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