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Big Pharma cures for ailing heritage monuments

October 29, 2009 02:12 IST

The world of big pharma and that of cultural heritage protection do not obviously overlap.

But in fact there are logical connections, or so claims Dr Alex Valcke, vice president of one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, Janssen Pharmaceutica, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

A microbiologist, Valcke is also general manager of the Belgium-headquartered Janssen's PMP (preservation and material protection) department. For 25 years, he has developed products using molecules from the pharma giant's chemical libraries for use in protecting a range of materials including wood, textiles, paint coatings, metals and terracotta.

"You just have to extend your thinking from fighting infections in human beings to animals, then crops and finally materials, including those that make up historical monuments and other kinds of cultural heritage," explains Valcke.

As a result of his team's efforts, the same processes by which antimycotic drugs fight infections like athlete's foot and ringworm are also helping ward off fungal infestations in terracotta warrior figurines in China, 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummies and a variety of medieval books and paintings in Belgium.

Closer to home, the bio-degradation suffered by two of India's most celebrated heritage sites, Tipu Sultan's palace in Srirangapatna and the Unesco World Heritage-listed Hampi temple complex, are the unlikely beneficiaries of big pharma's expertise as well.

In 2005, Janssen signed a memorandum of understanding with the Archeological Survey of India on the occasion of the visit to India by Prince Philippe of Belgium.

Under the MoU, the pharma company undertook to determine which biocidal compounds would be the best suited to combat the deterioration in the Hampi temples which were under attack from mould, algae and lichen.

The teakwood structure of Tipu Sultan's palace was also being assailed by wood wasps and termites and fungal decay, mainly white-rot fungi. Janssen undertook to provide the ASI with its newly developed termite bait technologies, as well as to supply free of charge all the compound formulations necessary to eliminate the moulds and fungi at both sites.

Valcke says the project has been a partial success, with both sides gaining knowledge and experiences. However, it has also been hampered by discontinuity in personnel, with several changes within the ASI.

For the moment, Janssen has sent samples of anti-fungal formulations to an ASI laboratory in Dehra Dun for testing, the results of which are awaited.7

"It's been a little bit of a two steps forward, one step back experience. So, while there is progress, there has not been as much as a sense of urgency to move ahead as we had in China for example," the scientist reveals.

In China, Janssen has successfully cooperated with the government to treat fungus infestations on the world-famous terracotta warrior statues in the city of Xian. The project took three years to complete.

Valcke remembers how, given that the lab back in Belgium could not use actual samples of the statues to experiment on, terracotta flowerpots were used instead. Having developed an effective cocktail formulation to fight the fungi, Janssen has gone on to assist with battling lichen in the archeological pits.

The company, in fact, has a large drug production facility in Xian. It has now also set up a special laboratory, named after the company founder, called the Dr. Paul Janssen Laboratory for Advanced Material Protection Research. The lab focuses on the preservation of relics not only in the Terracotta Army museum but throughout China.

"But it's difficult to compare the Chinese and Indian projects," adds Valcke. "Hampi is a whole site after all, whereas the terracotta warriors are simple objects. There are local people living in Hampi, for example, and some of the temples are still in use. The range of issues is different from what we encountered in China."

Neither the Chinese nor Indian heritage protection projects are seen by Janssen as a commercial opportunity. "We don't make money from these but we give something to the community which is a reward," says the scientist.

There are, however, other commercial projects that the Janssen PMP department does pursue. One recent example is a pyrrole compound to mix in the paint used to coat large, sea-going vessels.

In the past, big ships used paint mixed with tin or copper to repel the bio-film of algae, barnacles and other sea life that attaches to the vessels, causing a drag. The drag slows the ships, leading to the use of tens of thousands of tonnes of extra fuel per year, thus contributing heavily to carbon dioxide emissions.

But although effective in fighting the drag, once the tin and copper compounds wash off into the seawater, they've been found to have a detrimental ecological effect on non-target populations. Snails, for example, have been discovered to develop an extra set of sexual organs as a result.

Valcke's team has now devised a biodegradable, fast-hydrolising pyrorole compound that can be used as a replacement, reducing the drag but with a neutral impact on the marine environment. The Unites States Navy is already looking to adopt the new product, as is the private yachting industry, spelling big bucks for Janessen

Eco warrior and heritage savior are both unexpected roles for a large pharmaceutical company. "But at Janssen, we have always been encouraged to think out of the box," says Valcke. "Human health is not unrelated to these issues. A lot of diseases are brought into the body from contact with contaminated materials, food and water."

For the time being, Janssen is unique amongst pharma companies in pursuing these connections. But if others took a leaf out of their book, or chemical library as it were, the germ of a whole new industry for the 21st century could well take seed.
Pallavi Aiyar in Brussels
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