“Pick A Powder” RIP?
Apr27

“Pick A Powder” RIP?

I wrote this post on April 15th for my monthly gig at the Science-Based Medicine blog but just thought of it again this weekend as I drove past the BC Powder historic building in downtown Durham, NC. One thing I’ve observed since bringing Terra Sig to CENtral Science last summer is that we get a readership that is distinctly different than what I have seen when blogging in more biomedical environs (at least as far as institutional IP address hits tell me on SiteMeter.) So, I wanted to update this post for you – Dear C&EN/CENtral Science reader – and add a few pictures. Truth be told, I really like this post in part because I love the pharmacy history of the American South. I also think that we could do a better job down here of using NASCAR enthusiasm to promote careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The following is adapted from a post that appeared originally on 15 April 2011 at Science-Based Medicine. After spending the first 21 years of life in New Jersey and Philadelphia, I ventured to the University of Florida for graduate school. For those who don’t know, UF is in the north-central Florida city of Gainesville – culturally much more like idyllic south Georgia than flashy south Florida. It was in Gainesville – “Hogtown” to some – that I first encountered the analgesic powder. I believe it was BC Powder, first manufactured just over 100 years ago within a stone’s throw of the Durham, NC, baseball park made famous by the movie, Bull Durham. I remember sitting with my grad school buddy from Kansas City watching this TV commercial with hardy men possessing strong Southern accents enthusiastically espousing the benefits of BC. I looked at Roger – a registered pharmacist – and asked, “what in the hell is an analgesic powder?” What I learned is that powders of analgesic compounds were one of the individual trademark products of Southern pharmacies during the early 1900s. Here’s the simple reason from an NCPedia reprint of a Suzanne Mewborn article entitled, Inventive Spirit: Pain Relief, in the Fall 2006 issue of Tar Heel Junior Historian: It was very common for druggists in the early 1900s to buy raw materials and make their own prescriptions. Pills were harder for the local druggist to make, so pain-relief powders developed as a regional heritage. Many of these powders became quite popular with mill and textile workers needing to calm headaches induced by long hot days with loud machinery. The original powders contained a precursor to acetaminophen called phenacetin (also shown in the old photo as acetophenetidin – good...

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ACS Public Service Award to NIGMS Director, Jeremy Berg
Apr22

ACS Public Service Award to NIGMS Director, Jeremy Berg

We here at the World Headquarters of Terra Sigillata wanted to send a shout-out to the only friend of the science blogosphere who oversees a $2 billion budget, Dr. Jeremy Berg of the National Institute for General Medical Sciences. In an April 13th Capitol Hill ceremony, Dr. Berg was recognized with a 2011 American Chemical Society Public Service Award together with Norman P. Neureiter, Ph.D., senior advisor to the Center for Science Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The ACS press release states: Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been an advocate for scientific research, research training, and programs designed to increase the diversity of the biomedical and behavioral research workforce. He has served as director of NIGMS since November 2003, overseeing a diverse array of research in areas including chemistry, biological chemistry, and pharmacology. The institute supports more than 4,500 research grants, about 10 percent of the grants funded by NIH as a whole. Under Berg’s leadership, NIGMS has increased the visibility of the role chemistry plays in improving health and has recognized the importance of green chemistry. Berg has also overseen the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and New Innovator Award programs, which encourage innovation by supporting exceptionally creative investigators. Prior to his appointment as NIGMS director, Berg directed the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., where he also served as professor and director of the department of biophysics and biophysical chemistry. In addition, he directed the Markey Center for Macromolecular Structure and Function and co-directed the W.M. Keck Center for the Rational Design of Biologically Active Molecules at the university. Our overlords colleagues at C&EN – Associate Editor Dr. Britt Erickson, to be precise – also ran an article this past Monday with a nice photo of Drs. Berg and Neureiter. Berg will be leaving NIGMS this summer to relocate with his wife, breast cancer imaging guru, Wendie Berg, MD, PhD, to the University of Pittsburgh as Associate Senior Vice Chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning (Pitt press release). While his departure is bittersweet for those of us who have engaged with him on a variety of levels, his decision is one that was widely lauded across the science blogosphere as in this December, 2010, blogpost by our colleague, DrugMonkey: Many of us are in dual-professional and even dual-academic partnerships these days. There are struggles and compromises that are almost as varied as the number of couples involved. Here’s a member of a partnership taking what looks,...

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GSK to sell iconic Elion-Hitchings building
Apr18

GSK to sell iconic Elion-Hitchings building

On the heels of last week’s announcement that GlaxoSmithKline was selling off 19 consumer products comes news today by Laura Oleniacz from the Durham Herald-Sun that the drugmaker is liquidating some of its facilities on its Research Triangle Park campus. One of these buildings is the futuristic structure built in 1972 for then Burroughs-Wellcome as designed by famed architect, Paul Rudolph. Now known as the Elion-Hitchings building in honor of the Nobel prize-winning chemists, the facility is one of the most recognizable landmarks in pharmaceutical history. Click here for a fantastic series of copywritten photos from architect Kelvin Dickinson of The Paul Rudolph Foundation. You may recognize the building from the movie, Brainstorm, with Christopher Walken and the late Natalie Wood. (Her final film, the movie was released almost two years after her Wood’s death.) Elion and Hitchings were awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, not Chemistry, for their synthesis of antimetabolite drugs – analogs of nucleic acid bases that selectively killed tumor cells but became treatments for gout (allopurinol), herpesviruses (acyclovir), and HIV/AIDS (AZT; zidovudine). Of interest to ACS readers and others interested in pharmaceutical history, the Elion-Hitchings Building is located almost directly across the Durham Freeway (NC-147) from the ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark at Research Triangle Institute, now RTI International. That landmark honors the discoveries of Taxol and camptothecin by the late Monroe Wall and still-spry Mansukh Wani. One might ask why the Elion-Hitchings Building was never nominated for an ACS landmark. My guess is that many of the antimetabolite compounds synthesized by Elion and Hitchings were made before Burroughs-Wellcome’s US facilities moved from New York to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park in 1970. After Hitchings retired in 1967, Elion stayed on almost until her death in 1999, still working with young researchers both at BW and at nearby Duke University. Of note, Elion’s group did synthesize acyclovir at the RTP facility. I love old buildings, even if old in this case is the early 1970s. So, what could be done with this building? I have an idea: hipster scientist condominiums. Research Triangle Park was officially chartered in 1959 long before the idea of mixed-use developments – gasoline was only about 16 cents per gallon and the whole idea of recruiting companies from the North to North Carolina was that workers could have inexpensive housing with lots of land out in the surrounding rural areas. As a result, the immediate RTP area is known for its relative lack of housing and services such as restaurants, coffeeshops, and brewpubs (i.e., places that scientists could gather for creative discussion). Most companies have their own services,...

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Thoughts are with Shaw University
Apr17

Thoughts are with Shaw University

Those of you in the US are probably aware that a huge swath of bad weather across the Southeast spawning tornadoes has killed dozens of people, 22 here in North Carolina alone. One area hit heavily was just south of downtown Raleigh, the state capital, in and around the campus of Shaw University. Shaw is an independent, historically Black university founded in 1865 and, for readers here, home to a ACS-accredited chemistry program.  Shaw was also home from 1881 to 1914 of Leonard Medical School and School of Pharmacy that graduated some of the most influential African-American physicians and pharmacists of their day. Among those was the late Dr. James E. Shepard, founder of my school, North Carolina Central University. While Shaw was fortunate that no students or staff were killed or injured, damage to the campus was extensive enough that Shaw President Dr. Irma McClaurin has canceled classes for the rest of the semester. A detailed letter explaining how academic activities cannot be safely conducted is contained within this PDF of a letter released today. The city has set up a shelter at Southeast Raleigh High School for all in the area, including about 150 Shaw students who are reported displaced. While the campus is normally easily accessed from the S Saunders St exit on Interstate 40 (#298), streets in the area are closed and authorities recommend that all except trained aid and utility workers stay out of the area today. I know that we have a lot of students and faculty here and around the world who will wish to provide assistance so I will keep all apprised of developments in that vein. Update 1: This assembly of time-lapse images from WRAL-TV shows a large column developing from the south toward downtown Raleigh. Update 2: The NOAA report (PDF) on the tornado activity across a 63-mile path indicates that the tornado decreased in intensity as it hit Shaw, then strengthened again as it moved northeast. Update 3 (Mon 18 Apr): Columnist Barry Saunders of the Raleigh News & Observer wrote this morning that a fund has been established to defray the costs associated with this weekend’s tornado damage: President McClaurin said the school has set up a disaster relief fund at Mechanics & Farmers Bank at 13 E. Hargett St., Raleigh, 27601. [Indicate on checks that the funds are intended for the “Shaw University Disaster Relief Fund.”] I’ve been live-streaming Shaw’s excellent jazz radio station, WSHA 88.9 FM, since I finished teaching this morning and am learning that the community is really coming out in support of all those affected by these tornadoes. Update 4 (Wed 20...

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Poppy seed tea can kill you (repost)

Almost exactly two years ago, I posted the following story at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata. I was drawn to revisit this moving, tragic story yesterday after reading a post by organometallic chemist Sharon Neufeldt at I Can Has Science? entitled, Morphine, Heroin, and Lemon Poppy Seed Cake. In honor of Tom’s courage and the memory of his son, this repost is a fitting adjunct to Sharon’s essay. The following post appeared originally on 31 March 2009 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata. A little over a week ago, we posted on the very sad story of the accidental death of a University of Colorado sophomore from ingesting poppy seed tea. The poppy, Papaver somniferum, is the commercial source for prescription narcotic painkillers such as morphine and codeine. The seeds can be had online and in retail stores. The plants can often be grown if these seeds are not roasted or otherwise sterilized. I had originally suspected that the CU-Boulder student had not used poppy seed tea but rather some other decoction of the plant itself. I had always contended that the seeds did not contain appreciable amounts of morphine, codeine, or other opiate-related molecules. However, it appears that I am wrong. Commenter Tom just shared with me the absolutely heartbreaking story of the death of his 17-year-old son from poppy seed tea: Abel, Just a note regarding your statement: “A previous report has been that the student and friends were boiling up poppy seeds, but I was suspicious as those lack significant amounts of opiates.”. Our son died 6 years ago from exactly the same causes as the man in this case. Except that my did in fact use only poppy seeds, in large amounts. Even though there is no Morphine in the seeds, they contain traces from the rest of the plant from the processing/harvesting. We have put up a Web site that includes the coroner’s report stating that cause of death was indeed Morphine overdose from poppy seed tea. You can find our Web site at: http://www.poppyseedtea.com/ I spent some time on Tom’s site, Poppy Seed Tea Can Kill You, and I just have to say that I am in awe of the effort and courage this gentleman has undertaken to keep other kids and other parents from experiencing the same tragedy. Related specifically to Tom’s comment, he has courageously posted a redacted version of the medical examiner’s report from 13 Sept 2003. Therein, the toxicology analysis of tissues, blood, and the tea his son ingested are detailed. On the third page, the content of the tea was quantified as having a “high level of morphine,”...

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