Must-See ACS Webinar: Superbugs and Drug Development
Feb26

Must-See ACS Webinar: Superbugs and Drug Development

One of science journalism’s expert voices, author Maryn McKenna, will be the guest on this Thursday’s ACS Webinar Joy of Science series at 2:00 – 3:00 pm Eastern time. Free, as always, you can sign up to participate at this link. McKenna’s book, SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, is a thorough and accessible investigation of the reemergence of lethal bacterial infections while new drug development lags. The book, now in paperback, received the 2011 Science in Society Award from the the National Association of Science Writers. McKenna had spent much of her career at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the only U.S. reporter assigned full time to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, her first book, Beating Back the Devil, detailed her experiences with CDC’s Epidemic Investigation Service (EIS), the team dispatched anywhere in the world that’s experiencing an unusual infectious disease event. From her book’s website: I was following a group of disease detectives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, through an investigation of bizarre skin infections in Los Angeles. The CDC wanted to know where men were picking them up. I wanted to know something more fundamental: How could a minor problem — something that the victims all described as looking like a tiny spider bite — blow up into massive infections that ate away at skin and muscle, put people into the hospital for weeks and drained their health and their bank accounts? Where had it come from? And if it could do that, what else was it capable of? Maryn’s one of the best science writers in the world in terms of mastering her subject and making it widely accessible. Of course, her webinar will be of interest to anyone concerned about the proliferation of drug-resistant infectious diseases and how to design drugs to stay a step ahead of evolution. But she’s also a great model to emulate for anyone trying to make their scientific work more approachable to non-experts. You might even learn a thing or two about telling a gripping story. And, thanks to your American Chemical Society, dialing into the webinar is FREE. Go here to register. You don’t even need to be an ACS member! You can thank me later. The webinar will be archived but you can also hear from Maryn McKenna on a regular basis at her Wired Science blog, Superbug and on Twitter...

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Why Isn’t Caffeine Called “Theoanaleptine”?
Feb13

Why Isn’t Caffeine Called “Theoanaleptine”?

This question came to me as I read last week’s C&EN cover story by Dr. Lauren K. Wolf on caffeine toxicity entitled, “Caffeine Jitters.” By the way, read it if you haven’t — it’s open-access on C&EN right now and remains the most-read (last 7 days), most-commented (last 30 days), and most-shared (last 30 days) article since it appeared. Lauren did a terrific job of sifting through decades of information on the physiological effects of caffeine to make sense out of the true health hazards of caffeine consumption at “normal” and excessive doses. Caffeine, a natural alkaloid found predominantly in coffee beans, is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine (not IUPAC, but you get it). In the body, the hepatic cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to theophylline, theobromine, and paraxanthine.   Divine chemicals Of note, theobromine and theophylline also occur in nature. Theobromine is found in cacao beans. Because chocolate is heavenly, it was given the Greek name for “food of the gods”: theos – god; broma – food. Correct, theobromine contains no bromine. Had it contained bromine, the name might have been the same but would have been derived from the Greek bromos, or “stench” – “stench of the gods,” which, clearly, it is not. Theophylline also occurs naturally and had been extensively used as a bronchodilator for folks with asthma. Primatene tablets used to contain theophylline but today are ephedrine. Again, theophylline has the godly theo- prefix while the -phylline suffix indicated that it comes from leaves. And apologies to paraxanthine. It’s known historically for having first been isolated from urine in 1883. Not until the 1980s was it shown to occur in some plants. In any case, the biosynthesis of the di- and tri-methylxanthines originate with xanthosine from purine metabolism. So to my question. . . Because caffeine is so widely worshiped, why is it not known as theoanaleptine? The Greek analeptikos means stimulant and the English term analeptic is defined as a stimulant drug. So, why not? My best guess is because caffeine was described in the literature prior to theophylline and theobromine. From M.J. Arnaud’s chapter in Caffeine (Springer, 1984): The isolation of caffeine from green coffee beans was described in Germany in 1820 by Runge and confirmed the same year by von Giese. In France, Robiquet in 1823 and then Pelletier in 1826 independently discovered a white and volatile crystalline substance. The name “cofeina” appeared in 1823 in the “Dictionaire des termes de medécine” and the word “caffein” or “coffein” was used by Fechner in 1826. Arnaud goes on to say that theobromine was discovered in cocoa beans in 1842 and theophylline in tea leaves...

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Naming Genes Unlike Named Reactions
Oct29

Naming Genes Unlike Named Reactions

Our best wishes to all of you in the Northeast getting ready for Hurricane Sandy. I understand that even DC is closed today. So if you still have power at home, let me share a bit of levity with you. Over the weekend I learned that my science writing student, Meghan Radford (@meradfor), had a clever piece published at mental_floss, the magazine and website, “where knowledge junkies get their fix.” Megan’s article entitled, “18 Gene Names that Cover the Gamut, From Movies to Pop Culture to Cartoons,” illustrates the comical yet discordant and unscientific process behind naming genes. Her article reminded me of C&EN’s Carmen Drahl when she wrote about named reactions in both the magazine (C&EN, 17 May 2010) and her Newscripts blog here at CENtral Science. I’m not familiar with any genes that are named after the person who discovered them but, as Radford points out, a great many have been given interesting colloquial names. International gene nomenclature organizations exist but the standardized rules of these committees still make refer to the less formal names. For example, the human “sonic hedgehog” gene is SHH. The name of the original Drosophila hedgehog gene, hh, made functional sense as described by Nobel laureate, Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: fruit fly embryos with mutated hh expressed pointy extrusions called denticles and resembled hedgehogs. The mammalian homologue, Sonic was named after the Sega video game character. My favorite from Radford’s list is one I hadn’t known: INDY, for “I’m not dead yet.” Beyond this laboratory levity is a very serious issue for clinicians. From a 2006 New York Times article by John Schwartz: A gene with a funny name may be linked to a medical condition that can be heartbreaking. The human variant of the fruit fly’s “hedgehog” gene, known as “sonic hedgehog” after the video-game character, has been linked to a condition known as Holoprosencephaly, which can result in severe brain, skull and facial defects. “It’s a cute name when you have stupid flies and you call it a ‘turnip,’ ” Dr. Doe said. “When it’s linked to development in humans, it’s not so cute any more.” But today, I take time to be proud of my student for pitching a story to mental_floss and getting published. You can also read more formal writing by Meghan Radford at her blog, Neural Expression. Source: Radford, Meghan. 18 Gene Names that Cover the Gamut, From Movies to Pop Culture to Cartoons. http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/148072, 27 October 2012....

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L’Embarras Des Richesses: ScienceOnline2013 and ScienceWriters2012
Sep29

L’Embarras Des Richesses: ScienceOnline2013 and ScienceWriters2012

In this quiet moment on a rainy Saturday evening in North Carolina Piedmont, I lie here in awe of the breadth of creative talent and boundless enthusiasm that this place attracts. Tonight at 5:00 pm Eastern time, a couple hundred folks or so learned that they had not scored a slot in the lottery for the remaining spaces at ScienceOnline2013. I won’t be there this year either but I can certainly understand the disappointment. This simple idea of Bora Zivkovic along with Let’s-Get-Together-and-See-Where-This-Goes Guy, Anton Zuiker, has grown from a small gathering of likeminded online science enthusiasts to become the South-By-Southwest of science meetings, now under the exceptional leadership of Karyn Traphagen. I encourage everyone to stay on or sign up for the waitlist. Lots of plans change between now and late January so registration slots will most certainly open up. But in the meantime, you might consider another possibility that just happens to be available this year very near to the same GPS coordinates: ScienceWriters2012, the annual conference of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers. Scheduled for October 26-30, 2012, ScienceWriters2012 will be headquartered at the very same hotel with a program crafted by a broad group of science communicators that include a subset of ScienceOnline folks. (For the record, we’re called Science Communicators of North Carolina, or SCONC.). Here, look at the schedule yourself. There is one considerable difference between the NASW and ScienceOnline: NASW has a membership application process (and I only just became a member this past year). Students can probably still get in before the meeting registration deadline of October 10 by submitting their membership application now. That qualifies them for the $75 registration fee (and membership is only $35/year). Go to the bottom of the membership registration information page here and sign up for a free NASW account to begin the registration process. You’re permitted two years of student membership after which you must apply to be a full member. For us folks who are, um, in the years out of school, non-member registration for the meeting is $395 and member registration is now $195 (the early-bird deadline has passed). If you’re not currently a member but wish to become one, the process requires submission of five published clips (written for lay audiences over the last five years) and two sponsor nominations from current NASW members. I’m not sure if that can be accomplished in time for the meeting but you might inquire with the NASW Director’s Office (_director_at_nasw_org_ — you know what to do with the underscores). This will be my first NASW...

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RTI scientists solving forensic, designer drug mysteries
Sep09

RTI scientists solving forensic, designer drug mysteries

Catching up on my reading this Sunday morning, I’m beaming with pride on the collective accomplishments and coverage of some old friends and colleagues. Kerstin Nordstrom, a AAAS Mass Media Fellow with the Raleigh News & Observer, had a nice story on 3 September about the work of Dr. Peter Stout at RTI International. You old-timers will know this non-profit entity as Research Triangle Institute, home to the discoveries of Taxol and camptothecin by Wall and Wani and colleagues. Kerstin, or Dr. Nordstrom I should say as she holds a PhD in physics, interviews RTI’s Dr. Peter Stout on the institute’s forensic analytical chemistry capabilities with regard to the “designer drug” industry. Yes, here we go again with my long-running commentary on the “synthetic marijuana,” “herbal incense,” “plant food,” and “bath salts” products that have recently taken a direct hit from “Operation Log Jam,” a coordinated, federal operation to shut down the industry. In my post on the federal takedown, I referred to a paper by Stout’s RTI colleagues where mass defect filtering was used to identify unknown analogs of known illegal compounds, particularly the JWH group of cannabimimetic naphthoylindoles (Anal. Chem., DOI:10.1021/ac300509h). (Addendum: That paper was also covered nicely in the 15 June C&EN by Erika Gebel.) Coincidentally, both Kerstin and Peter are dear to me – hence the following disclosures before singing the praises of the article: Peter earned his Ph.D. in molecular toxicology from Dr. Jim Ruth’s lab at my former home, the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy. My time at RTI’s Natural Products Laboratory (2002-2008) overlapped with Peter’s hiring. As an aside, I had not known Peter was hired until he saw a cart outside of my laboratory with my name and hunted me down, guessing there weren’t many Krolls in biochemical pharmacology. An equally lighthearted observation is that Peter has almost completely shaved his head as long as I’ve know him; I’m certain that’s a coincidence with his dissertation research project, “Mechanisms of Drug Disposition into Hair.” Disclosure #2: Kerstin is a fellow graduate of the 2011 Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and serendipitously ended up here in the Triangle for her AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. What I like about the story is how both of them describe analytical techniques in relatively approachable language: Kerstin on HPLC: For liquid chromatography, an unknown chemical is pushed through a pipe. The pipe is filled with tiny silica particles – 1 to 10 micrometers in size – that attract some molecules and repel others. Each chemical has a different attraction, and so some, attracted to the grains, go slower than...

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Talking fungi at Skeptically Speaking
Feb05

Talking fungi at Skeptically Speaking

Well, if you’re looking for something to do during Super Bowl halftime than watch Madonna, you’re welcome to join me online for the wildly-successful science radio show, Skeptically Speaking. With Edmonton-based host Desiree Schell (@teh_skeptic) and her US-based producer K.O. Myers (@KO_Myers), we’ll be discussing the secret lives of fungi, particularly as related to the synthesis of secondary metabolites that we use as therapeutic agents. If you’re able to join us live, we’ll be at this UStream.tv page at 8 pm Eastern, 6 pm Mountain. On the chat bar at the right of the page, you can follow the online discussion and submit questions of your own. I hope that you can dial us in. If not, the complete podcast will be downloadable on the evening of February...

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