Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 10th Jun 2007

Corruption in China, the Atkins diet and the goodness of wine.

Mark Peplow, Chemistry World Magazine

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Chris -   Now Mark Peplow the editor of Chemistry World magazine from the Royal Society of Chemistry is here. What have you got for us Mark?

Mark:  The first story up is a bit gruesome but absolutely fascinating. It's about the former head of China's State Food and Drug Agency, just a few weeks ago he was sentenced to death after being found guilty of bribery and corruption.  This is such a big deal because estimate of the number of people who die in China every year just by taking counterfeit or sub-standard drugs runs in the hundreds of thousands.  This guy Zheng Xiaoyu was in charge of the state drug agency for about 8 years and he's been found guilty of taking bribes of up to a million dollars from 8 different pharmaceutical companies and illegally approving their products.

Chris:  It's quite interesting, because most people don't view China as being the most open country in the world when it comes to giving information and human rights, so it seems strange that they are taking such a though stance on this guy.  Is it because it directly affects people in China that they've done this?

Mark:  It's much broader than that actually, one of the interesting things about the way China's business, industry and science is going at the moment is that there is this huge push to get into the global market place and also to attract investment from abroad into China.  This move to execute Zheng is generally seen as a way to send out a real 'getting though' message to the rest of the world, that the Chinese government are trying to clean-up the amount of bribery and corruption which really spreads throughout the whole state system but has particularly effected the pharmaceutical industry.  It's very telling that on the day that his execution was announced there was no official comment from the Chinese drug agency but they did post the second draft of their revised regulations on how they were going to clean-up their industry.

Chris:  Still a pretty radical thing to just execute someone, I mean we've got people in prison here for doing probably more corruptive things than that, I would think?

Mark:  Absolutely and as many commentators have pointed out, this may actually be a counter-productive move.  Clearly Zheng isn't the only person guilty of corruption within the drug agency.  In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that it's really the negligence of local officials which is the problem here.  I think this is likely to send out a mixed message to pharmaceutical companies who want to invest in China.  It shows that the rule of law is somewhat patchy, it also shows that it's extremely open to political motivation as well; there's been a massive smear campaign against this guy, before he was found guilty, running in Chinese state media for the last 6 months.

Chris:  Well that's certainly food for thought, and talking of food, Atkins; it made the guy who wrote the book an absolute fortune, unfortunately he is no longer here to enjoy that fortune, but people have now found some scientific credence for his argument that eating a high fat diet makes you lose weight.

Mark:  That's right.  The Atkins diet is basically very high in fat and very low in carbohydrates.  It's called a ketogenic diet because it makes your body breakdown fatty acids into a variety of compounds broadly classed as ketones, so breaking down these fatty acids, in theory, should help you slim down.  Now there are two studies that were published last week in the Journal of Cell Metabolism.  The first found that this sort of ketogenic diet stimulates the production of a hormone called fibroblast growth factor 21.  The second study found that this growth factor actually stimulates fat metabolism in the liver.  In this study that was done in Texas, they injected mice with this growth factor and found that it turned on a starvation response, so the mice switch from using carbohydrates to burning up their fat stores as an energy supply.

Chris:  So is this the diet pill of the future then?  Is this the remedy that people have been searching for?

Mark:  Well, there is no way of telling, because this may be the hormone that's responsible for turning your body to burning its fat supplies.  But at this stage the experiments have been done in mice so there is no telling what else it's doing to your body.

Chris:  Hmm... that's worrying.  But talking of putting things in your body that might actually do good things, to end on a high note, we've all heard of cider, now you've got some good news about red wine?

Mark:  Yes, this is a nice, fun story for any wine lover really, a team of scientists at the university of Pavia in Italy have been investigating what happens to wine when you slosh it around your mouth.  It tastes good for a start, but they've found that both red and white wine can actually kill the bacteria that causes caries, otherwise known as tooth decay.

Chris: But isn't that just the alcohol?

Mark: Well, that's the interesting thing, you might think that, but they actually checked this by de-alcoholising their wines prior to the test in order to exclude the effect of alcohol on bacterial growth.  They also checked to make sure that it wasn't the acidity of the wine by making some synthetic wine with the same pH (acidity) and it was nothing like the effect of the real wine.  But they think that they have pinned down the effect to a group of acids called succinic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid that are present in wines, particularly prevalent in red wines. They think that these acids can inhibit the activity of enzymes, which are big molocules that spped up chemical reactions in cells.  Effectively that kills off bacteria, more than 99.9% of all the bacteria in your mouth in one particular case.

Chris: How much better or worse is this than just toothpaste?

Mark: Clearly this isn't the only way that you can kill bacteria in your mouth and there are a variety of mouth washes out there, but if you are looking for another excuse to have just that extra glass of wine, make sure you slosh it around your mouth good and proper!

Chris: The only slight problem is that these red wines have a lot of tannin so you end up with nice, carie-free teeth but it doesn't stop them from going black, at least in the short term?

Mark: That's possibly true but as in all things, moderation is the key I think.

Chris: Thanks Mark. That's Mark Peplow the editor of Chemistry World magazine from the Royal Society of Chemistry, and you can find out more about Mark and what he writes about in his work at chemistryworld.org.

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