Midsummer Alchemist

Midsummer alchemistFirst online in The Alchemist, this week, is an award for pioneering work in mass spectrometry and the study of molecules colliding with surfaces.

A way to create the thinnest polyethylene plastic bag ever has been devised by a team in Germany, while Australian researchers are hoping to defeat HIV by thickening the protective keratin layer of the penis using the female hormone estrogen. The Alchemist also learns that the Brits are turning to waste oil from that wondrous delicacy Fish & Chips to power up their cars.

Also in this week’s issue, Japanese chemists have synthesized what at first site looks to be a hexavalent carbon compound. Finally, with the long summer months stretching ahead of those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, The Alchemist cracks open a tinny and discovers that researchers in Venezuela have uncovered the secret to making beer last longer – add a little poison.

Grab all leads in my Alchemist column on Chemweb.com

Also live this week, the latest Intute Spotlight, covering rule-breaking quantum mechanics, exploiting pathological proteins in polymer science, and size does matter (on a planetary scale). Switch on the Spotlight. You may also like to check out the recent scientific discoveries archive on Sciencebase.

8 thoughts on “Midsummer Alchemist”

  1. Hugh, thanks for the additional info. Yes, that last sentence is very important – “He doesn’t actually have any evidence from the field”. It’s all very well proving a mechanism in the Petri dish…

  2. Yes, it is the skin of the inner foreskin (the mucosa) that Short wants to keratinise, and he has suggested that circumcision reduces HIV by 80% (I don’t know where he gets that figure from, the much touted figure is 60%, a Relative Risk Reduction, from 2.5% to 1.2%, an absolute reduction of 1.8% – much smaller where HIV is less prevalent) and that oestrogen could mop up the remaining 20%. He doesn’t actually have any evidence from the field.

  3. Thanks for the additional (perhaps, much needed) background on this. It does sound like a rather odd way to think about disease prevention, but I don’t think his concept of keratinising the skin has anything to do with being circumcised or not, does it?

  4. The same researcher (Roger Short of the U of Melbourne) who claims oestrogen will keratinise the inner foreskin was touting lemon juice in the vagina to kill the HIV in 2003. That one didn’t go anywhere. He is also the main researcher claiming Langerhans cells in the foreskin reach out and grab the HIV, and promotes circumcision for that reason. HIV is more readily transmitted from male to female, but circumcision protects only the male (if at all).

    Using circumcision to prevent AIDS has rightly been compared to playing Russian Roulette with one bullet in the barrel instead of two, but it holds a strange fascination for researchers who are themselves circumcised. For nearly 150 years it has been a “cure” looking for a disease, usually the most feared of the day, and it was inevitable that HIV/AIDS would step up to the podium.

    In medicine, the measure of a treatment’s effectiveness is the Number Needed to Treat (NNT). A treatment is considered worth using if its NNT is in the low single digits. For HIV, in the African trials, the NNT averages 39. The cost of those would buy a lot of anti-malerials, clean water, operations on existing ailments or such. Where HIV is less prevalent, it would be much higher.

  5. I doubt very much that this effect would provide anywhere like adequate protection, but a small reduction in risk might be beneficial. I agree it’s a long shot to persuade men to repeatedly apply unless there were some sexual incentive, it would have to be topical application, after all. Protecting both partners would make sense, but in terms of controlling an epidemic (as opposed to looking out for individuals), it would only require a reduction in risk in the most prolific hosts to help bring an epidemic below a threshold that might have an impact on infection rates.

  6. Thanks David, that’s a valid argument. I can see that the treatment would be worthwhile in these cases. I do wonder if such men could be persuaded to use the treatment though, especially if it had to be reapplied. Similarly, they might be less willing if there were a reduction in sensitivity from the thickening.
    I understand that circumcision provides some protection because it leaves the virus more exposed, so the treatment might be most beneficial for uncircumcised men. It could help for both. I am sceptical that it would provide complete protection, but as you argue, some protection is better than none.
    With respect to abstinence, only before marriage! This can be difficult at times, but people do manage it, myself included. Reading Playboy probably wouldn’t help, but reading something by St Paul probably would. I think it is worth raising the possibility so that people realise that it is an option, with certain advantages.

  7. Good point Robin, but I think the issue is about reducing the risk to highly promiscuous men who will not use condoms (this is common, I believe in parts of Africa) reducing infection of the hosts (the men) who spread themselves widely will by turn reduce exposure to their partners.

    However, the skin thickening idea is possibly a total non-starter because the team were testing foreskins, whereas circumcision in the most AIDS susceptible parts of the world is common…

    As to the notion of abstinence being an option, I think that’s simply not going to happen.

  8. The defeat of HIV by thickening the keratin layer seems implausible because the protection would be very one sided, since it doesn’t protect the other partner. This might encourage men to continue their risky behaviour, instead of using more conventional protection. Protecting both partners is surely a better approach. If the thinnest ever polyethylene could be used to make the thinnest-ever condoms, then both partners would be better off. However, the best approach has to be the old-fashioned one: chastity before marriage and faithfulness within, as in the well-known Seventh Commandment, ‘Do not commit adultery’. It’s old but it’s good, if admittedly not always what we want to hear.

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