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Archive → April, 2011

“Pick A Powder” RIP?

BC Powder Historic Site, Durham, NC. Photo: David Kroll

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?”

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ACS Public Service Award to NIGMS Director, Jeremy Berg

Dr. Jeremy M. Berg, Director, NIGMS, Bioinorganic Chemist Extraordinaire. Photo: Ernie Branson NIH.

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.

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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.

The GSK Elion-Hitchings Building, formerly Burroughs-Wellcome headquarters, Research Triangle Park, NC. Photo: Joseph Molitor, Paul Rudolph Foundation.

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.)

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Thoughts are with Shaw University

An area of south Raleigh, NC, in and around the university was hard hit yesterday by a tornado.

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 Apr): Goodnight, Raleigh, a photoblog that captures our state capital at nighttime, is reporting that students from area universities are trying to raise $10,000 in funds by the end of exams to help those from Shaw, St. Augustine’s, and NC State who were affected by the tornado damage. Many who attend or work at each of these Raleigh institutions had damage to their personal residences as well.

Additionally, a group work effort has been scheduled at 3 pm on Thursday, April 21st, at Estey Hall on the Shaw University campus for all interested clean-up volunteers. Estey Hall is at the corner of Blount and East Streets. If you can go, be dressed in work clothes with strong-toed shoes. Organizers from a NC State student group, Universities United:Supporting Our State (UU:SOS), are also asking folks to bring heavy-duty trash bags, if possible.

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.

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Winners in The Henrietta Lacks Foundation design contest

First things first: Congratulations to Holly Gaskamp (hollycopter) and Michael Lombardi (Amoeba Mike)!

Let me explain. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind while planning for the 102nd Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) held April 2-6 in Orlando, Florida. Having been invited by author Rebecca Skloot to serve on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, we used our recently-awarded 501(c)(3) status (non-profit charity) to host an exhibitor’s booth at the meeting.

Given the very short timeline between this IRS ruling and the meeting, I turned to you – dear readers – for graphic design expertise to fashion buttons and T-shirts to award at the meeting booth to promote the mission of the Foundation: “Helping those who’ve unknowingly made important contributions to science.”

Well, we were fortunate to receive a wave of entries into our contest and two designers were selected to imprint their designs on official HeLa Foundation paraphernalia.

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Bummer SNP doesn’t mix with beer for gastric cancer risk

Greetings from The Land of The Mouse!

A study from led by investigators at the Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO) in Barcelona has revealed that high consumption of beer combined with a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in the alcohol dehydrogenase gene is associated with a nearly nine-fold increased risk of gastric cancer.

Thanks to the lovely folks in the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) press office who recognize science bloggers as press, I was able to sit in on a press conference this morning at the AACR annual meeting in Orlando where several studies were discussed on genetic and environmental factors in cancer risk.

Lead author of this particular study, cancer epidemiologist Eric Duell, Ph.D., presented a study of Europeans on alcohol consumption and risk of gastric cancer due to SNPs in the alcohol dehydrogenase gene, ADH1. Recall from biochemistry that ADH1 and other ADH forms catalyze the rate-limiting step in the ethyl alcohol oxidation to acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Acetaldehyde, in turn, is oxidized to acetate by aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDHs).

This is an impressive retrospective analysis. The study data was culled the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), a study of 521,000 individuals aged 35 to 50 who completed diet and alcohol use questionnaires at 23 centers across 10 European countries between 1992 and 1998. A subset, or nested-study, called EurGast examined environmental factors and genetic susceptibility to gastric cancer in 364 cases relative to 1272 controls.

When examined as a pool only one SNP was associated with a modest, 30% increased risk for gastric cancer.  Combining this SNP with alcohol consumption data revealed that 60 g EtOH/day increased risk by 75%. (Sixty grams of ethanol per day is the amount present in approximately four 12 oz beers at 5% alcohol by volume, four 5 oz glasses of wine at 12% ABV, or four 1oz shots of 100 proof liquor.)

However, the subanalysis of that SNP stratified for alcohol consumption and type of alcohol revealed the big surprise. Consumption as beer, but not wine or liquor, combined with this SNP at both alleles was associated with increased gastric cancer risk of 8.72-fold in this high consumption group (just one allele increased risk by only 33%). This SNP in the ADH1 gene, rs1230025, is an intergenic T→A polymorphism, neither in the promoter or the coding region of the gene.

The influence of this SNP has only been evaluated in one study where it was shown to be associated with a lower breath alcohol concentration – and presumably higher acetaldehyde concentration, although not explicitly measured – at late timepoints when normal volunteers are given a challenge of 0.75 g/kg of ethanol.

Eric Duell, PhD - Institut Catala D'Oncologia, Barcelona, Spain. Photo: DJ Kroll

But why is beer the only alcoholic beverage with this increased gastric cancer risk in the background of this particular SNP? Alcohol is alcohol, right? I asked Duell about this point because he said that beer has low levels of nitrosamines, the liver and stomach procarcinogens. However, nitrosamines are not activated to their proximal carcinogenic species by ADHs but rather by the cytochrome P450 CYP2E1 (incidentally, the same CYP that oxidizes ethyl alcohol at high concentrations. Duell also noted that the levels of nitrosamines are much lower in beer today than earlier in the lifetime of the participants.

Instead, Duell said he was interested in “what [were] they eating when they were drinking beer.” I find this aspect fascinating but can’t quite figure what other dietary carcinogen people would be eating that was influenced by this particular ADH genotype. I’m also interested to know the carcinogenic potential of other alcohols metabolized by ADH that may be present in beer but not wine or liquor. All sorts of lovely organics are made by yeast depending on the strain used, the specific grains, pH, oxygenation, and other metabolic substrates.

Since subjects evaluated in this work spanned 10 countries, incoming AACR president Judy Garber, MD, asked Duell if the cases could be analyzed by nationality. Unfortunately, Duell said, the study would lose the power necessary to see differences in these smaller subgroups.

So what do these data mean to alcohol consumers?  Well, first, drinking ethyl alcohol at 60g or greater per day has many other health risks besides gastric cancer, regardless of which ADH SNPs one might have. (Indeed, there may have been some conference attendees who I saw last night drinking with this degree of enthusiasm.).

However, this particular SNP is really, really bad news. I’m hard-pressed to think of any environmental factor besides smoking that causes a nine-fold increase in risk of any cancer. I’d definitely suggest to the consumer genomics company 23andMe that they add this SNP to their screen. Individuals choosing to drink alcoholic beverages may wish to know if they carry one or both of these ADH1 alleles.

But which alcoholic beverage? Beer is clearly a bad mix if you have both alleles of rs1230025. I’m sure that the European brewing community is none too pleased with Dr. Duell’s group.

However, the team may indeed be the toast of the wine and liquor industries.

Update 4 Apr 2:25 pm: I just had a chance to look more closely at the rs1230025 page at NCBI for the population distribution of this polymorphic region. Turns out that Craig Venter has no worries as his genotype is homozygous for the reference allele T/T. Jim Watson, however, had moderate risk in drinking beer being heterozygous (T/A). However, Celera’s collection of three sets of 30 unrelated individuals (African-American, Asian, and Caucasian) show the demon homozygous A/A at 79%, 96%, and 55% of each respective group. This limited Celera data is suggestive that the high risk genotype for gastric cancer with high beer consumption might be highly prevalent.