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International Year of Chemistry

From theory to practice

Two-way streets link research and industry

Estevan PelliThe cycle of talks held in FAPESP’s auditorium to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry was two-fold, as two far from casual subjects were discussed. After thinking how teaching should be modified to give rise to innovative minds, it was impossible not to describe those real cases in which knowledge reached industry, like how to improve mining,  produce plastics and fuels and  look for innovative medication based on plant biodiversity. It was precisely this that happened on October 19, but with a change in procedure: the coordinator of the panel, José Fernando Perez, became a speaker and talked about the setting up of Recepta Biopharma. He was followed by Luiz Eugênio Mello, from the Vale Technological Institute, Edmundo Aires, from the chemical company Braskem, and Thais Guaratini, from Lychnoflora, a company that originated within the university; all of them are good examples of the distance traveled by innovative minds.

As an engineer who became a physicist, José Fernando Perez changed direction when he became aware of the special circumstances found in Brazil for the development of health-related knowledge. “We’ve got qualified people, suitable facilities, excellent logistic companies, lower operating costs than those of other countries and easier access to patients for clinical trials,” was how he summed it up. Based on this perception, in 2007 he founded Recepta Biopharma, which is looking for innovative therapies for the treatment of cancer.

In association with the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, which was FAPESP’s partner in the Cancer Genome Project, in which initiative Perez participated as the scientific director, Recepta was able to undertake a different role from normal: it obtained the intellectual rights to specific monoclonal antibodies and outlined the paths of the research and development of these drugs, with the aim of taking them to clinics. “Our products are intangible: the intellectual property of drugs whose clinical effectiveness has been demonstrated.” It is ideas, innovative thinking and experiment planning that can lead to the development of drugs.

This was a great adventure for an engineer, who has not lost sight of the points of reference of his original educational background. Perez points out the great uncertainty found in this type of medical research, which is much greater than in engineering: “Until the very last moment, the last clinical trial, we don’t know whether the ‘plane’ is going to take off.” Even so, the prospects are promising and Recepta has become prominent in the development of drugs, an area that is not yet firmly established in Brazil. “We already have three clinical trials ongoing in phase II,” the company’s founder celebrated optimistically.

Rethinking what is successful
In the opposite direction to Perez, Luiz Eugênio Mello defined himself as a physician now moving towards mining. His being hired as a director by Vale, one of the world’s biggest mining companies, to set up the company’s Technological Institute, reflects the company’s search for new paths and its effort to counter the harmful image that it naturally evokes when people think about the environmental impact of the extraction of minerals.

Vale’s importance comes largely from the wealth of the deposits of Brazilian iron ore, which are good quality thanks to the ease with which they are extracted – when the iron is associated with other materials, like silicone, it becomes very expensive to separate it out. Even so, the company has no intention of resting on its laurels. On the contrary, it is trying to diversify its activities. A variation of iron ore is rare earths, elements such as europium, yttrium and terbium, which are important for technological use, as in computer screens, fluorescent lamps and in isolating radioactive fields, which makes them essential in nuclear power stations. “Perhaps they are the chemical elements of the future in that they add to the technology of humanity,” said Mello. The worldwide market for rare earths is far smaller than for iron, but investing in this new line of business is likely to be worth the trouble in Brazil, whose soil also has a relative abundance of these elements. Moreover, Mello pointed out, Vale is the world’s second largest nickel mining company and is growing as a producer of copper and potassium.

Eduardo CesarEdmundo Aires, Thais Guaratini, José Fernando Perez and Luiz Eugênio MelloEduardo Cesar

Although mining is by far the company’s main segment, other areas have been under development for some time, such as logistics, which includes a transport company, and power generation. In these sectors,chemistry is not always as much to the fore as when dealing with the elements that are found in the periodic table, but research in these areas is fundamental and is becoming increasingly important within Vale, according to the speaker.

This research may directly involve the chemical elements, like understanding to what extent some of them, which appear in low concentrations in the sought after ore,   interfere with the mining process. Another direct application lies in the characterization of new ore deposits, to learn if it is feasible to extract this resource.

Of course, an important research front from now on is likely to be the so-called green economy. Mello showed pictures of projects of the centers that are being built to make this research feasible. One of them , and one of the arms of the Vale Technological Institute in Belém, was planned by the prize-winning architect, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and will be a modern interpretation of the traditional constructions in the Amazon region that are built on stilts. “We want to think about green mining and the first step is to construct a green building,” he said. It will be a center covering 40,000 m2, where 400 people are to work. Another arm of the Technological Institute, in Minas Gerais, will be housed in a cube-shaped construction set into a mountain, with one face covered in brushed steel reflecting the surrounding trees, and another that will undergo a rusting process, thus showing the organic side of iron.

The research centers are not yet ready, but the recruitment of the researchers who will head the work has already begun. “People are essential; they’re the ones who make entities.” These are the researchers who should guarantee the future of Vale and prevent the 69-year old company from disappearing, following the natural life cycle of a large number of companies. “The world is moved by challenges and by people who face up to these challenges,” he concluded.

Green
For Edmundo Aires, the biggest challenge is to use the Earth carefully, because there is only one. “We’re seeing a convergence of interests now: social, economic and environmental.” He defines sustainable growth as a process based on improvements in standards, instead of in growth. “These standards substitute others that are considered to be unsatisfactory by society.” This is precisely where chemistry comes in. Seen as the villain of the last century, it now has the opportunity to become a solution.

Braskem has been seeeking to develop and produce chemical products and energy from biomass, such as elephant grass, sugarcane , algae and the like. “Knowing the peculiarities of each source of biomass can define the technology to be employed,” he explained.

Another objective is the production of sustainable plastics. Making this industry more suitable to current reality is a need that has been little developed so far: an example of this is the much heralded bottle made from vegetable plastic. “The plastic used in these bottles is only 30% green; the other 70% needs to be paraxylene, a raw material still not available from a renewable source.” By its own admission, Braskem already has several molecules that are candidates to be the building blocks of new types of plastic. “By 2015 we should have commercial processes for other substances,” he said. The forecast is that by 2020 the company will be producing other green plastics, over and above the polyethylene it produces in Rio Grande do Sul. By then, 10% of the chemical products must be green in origin, in accordance with the National Pact of the Chemical Industry, launched in 2010.

Home bred
Another company that is into green chemistry is Lychnoflora, represented by Thais Guaratini. Founded in 2008 in Ribeirão Preto, this firm is seeking to develop innovative products for the health industry, above all from the chemistry of natural products. While still studying pharmaceutical sciences, Thais had contact with the corporate world and began to think about research as a business opportunity. From this she went to work at the company set up by members of the university itself within the USP incubator in Ribeirão Preto. “The scenario in Brazil and in the university became more favorable after the 2004 innovation law,” she related. “The incentive for innovation and scientific research is greater now.”

Some examples of the products she has been developing are a drug for treating leishmaniasis, products for sun protection and an analgesic. Returning to the start of the October discussions, for Thais, corporate activity leads to improvements in teaching and also research, in that students have the experience of dealing with the challenges imposed by society.

Lychnoflora is now expanding its horizons and after growing within the incubator it is currently preparing to set up within a refurbished laboratory. It is also preparing to overcome challenges that go far beyond the market, like the regulations of the Conselho de Gestão do Patrimônio Genético (CGEN) [Management Council for Genetic Wealth]. The company has already obtained other licenses, but specific cases are encountering stumbling blocks that end up making access to native species difficult and obliging the researchers to work in this initial phase with plants from other countries, according to Thais.

In the same spirit as that of the snake that bit its own tail, mentioned by Ronaldo Mota (see report), Thais sees the education of students and the development of innovations with economic potential as continuing. Therefore, there are graduate students of chemistry and pharmaceuticals among the workers at Lychnoflora, as well as six PhDs. The researcher is planning to do a post-doctorate in something that the company has identified as being necessary for the development of innovation.

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