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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 30, 2005

Okadaic Acid Makes Vanity Fair

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Posted by Derek

Reader Jeff G. pointed out this blog post, which quotes the letters column in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair. The magazine ran a profile of Paris Hilton, about whom the less said the better, and quoted her in-the-same-category sister, Nicky, to the effect that she was working so hard, running multimillion-dollar companies and all, and what were the people writing about her doing at her age (21) that was so important?

The magazine published a letter from one Steven Sabes of Minnesota, who said:

. . . I would like to repond to that. When I was 21, I was busy working toward my Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota. I was the first to synthesize the compound okadaic acid -- shown to be the leading cause of breast cancer.

Well, I'm glad to see some organic chemistry make it into the pages of a magazine as empty-headed as Vanity Fair usually is. Face it, those of you readers who are fellow chem-geeks - our jobs might as well be voodoo hoodoo as far as the VF demographic is concerned. And Sabes and his okadaic acid work appear to be real. He's a graduate of Craig Forsyth's group at UMN.

The problem is, someone at the magazine seems to have mangled his point. Okadaic acid isn't the "leading cause" of breast cancer - it's a marine natural product that few people have ever encountered, unless they've had some really, really bad shellfish. It's a phosphatase inhibitor, which puts it in an interesting class of activity that's been hard to approach through traditional med-chem, and it's been used for many in vitro and in vivo research studies in cancer and other fields.

So I appreciate Sabes taking a whack at the Hilton sisters, and letting people know that organic synthesis actually exists. I just wish that his meaning had stayed intact.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Press Coverage


1. The Novice Chemist on November 30, 2005 10:37 PM writes...

I'm sure that the actual quote was "okadaic acid, shown to be the best (a good/the most potent/the most prominent) inhibitor of XYZ phosphatase, shown to be the leading cause of breast cancer."

Interesting that editors feel free to snip with wondering if it might change meanings.

Permalink to Comment

2. Timothy on December 1, 2005 10:40 AM writes...

At least VF still publishes Hitchens.

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3. GrrlScientist on December 1, 2005 9:07 PM writes...

Wow, it's really disturbing to see that an editor would change a letter so radically and not notify the author before it was published. It's no wonder that scientists tend to stay out of these things when there are idiot editors like that out there who twist their comments before publishing them.

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4. Katherine on December 2, 2005 11:26 AM writes...

Interesting that editors feel free to snip with[out?] wondering if it might change meanings.

Editors usually feel quite free to snip—we snip for a living, especially on a letters page, where you have to cut page-long diatribes down to a sentence or two. I would probably have edited the sentence to read "I was the first to synthesize the compound okadaic acid, which has been instrumental in breast cancer research," or something like that. The trick in editing technical writing is simplifying enough so you don't lose the reader, without losing the meaning either... and that's not so easy when your target reader is the Vanity Fair audience.

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5. PS on December 2, 2005 1:04 PM writes...

I say, what was the chemist doing reading Vanity Fair?? Must be the cold weather in Minnesota

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6. D. C. D. on December 16, 2005 4:43 PM writes...

Please just let us know if underarm deordorant, whether it contains okadaic acid or not, is a leading cause of breast cancer.

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7. Timwmason on December 8, 2013 5:09 PM writes...

The editors need to make sure that they don't change the meaning of an article when they cut content.

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8. Timwmason on December 8, 2013 5:11 PM writes...

The editors need to make sure that they don't change the meaning of an article when they cut content.

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