About this Author
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

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« More on Penn's T-Cell Therapy | Main | Did Kaggle Predict Drug Candidate Activities? Or Not? »

December 10, 2012

Why Did Pfizer Have All That Gold Dust, Anyway?

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

You've probably seen the story that a substantial quantity (roughly fifty pounds!) of gold dust seems to have gone missing from Pfizer's labs in St. Louis. No report I've seen has any details, though, on just what Pfizer was doing with that much gold dust - the company isn't saying. I can tell you that I've never found a laboratory use for it myself dang it all.

So let's speculate! Why would a drug company need gold dust on that scale? Buying it in that form makes you think that a large surface area might have been important, unless there was some gold refinery running Double Coupon Wednesday on the stuff. Making a proprietary catalyst? Starting material for functionalized gold nanoparticles? Solid support(s) for some biophysical assay? Classy replacement for Celite for those difficult filtrations? Your ideas are welcome in the comments. . .

Update: out of many good comments, my favorite so far is: "Knowing Pfizer, I'm guessing they were planning on turning it into lead."

Comments (61) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


1. alig on December 10, 2012 8:22 AM writes...

Probably a disgruntled employee who knew they were going to be laid off ordered the gold dust as an exit strategy.

Permalink to Comment

2. cookingwithsolvents on December 10, 2012 8:43 AM writes...

I'll take "Classy replacement for Celite". lol

Maybe they were making their own catalysts?

Permalink to Comment

3. eugene on December 10, 2012 8:43 AM writes...

A different form of holiday bonus for executives that can be passed off as a 'research expense' in an era where golden parachutes for failed executives are frowned upon. The official bonus for the failed CEO takes a hit, and the gold dust goes 'missing'. Later it will be melted together and added to the bulk gold that the CEO already bought as an 'investment' five years ago. No one will know the difference.

Ah yes. Tis an old story.

Permalink to Comment

4. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 8:44 AM writes...

I actually have a decades-old container of metal powder from Pfizer in my lab right now - they used to do other things before specializing in pharmaceuticals. Anyone who's worked in an academic lab that isn't fussy about throwing out old chemicals has probably seen ancient bottles of Merck reagents too.

Permalink to Comment

5. Jon on December 10, 2012 8:55 AM writes...

The first step in a criminal scheme worthy of Auric Goldfinger?

Permalink to Comment

6. Jonadab on December 10, 2012 8:58 AM writes...

Perhaps they needed it for a transmutation experiment:

Permalink to Comment

7. Auric Goldfinger on December 10, 2012 9:18 AM writes...

This is gold, Dr. Lowe. All my life, I have been in love with its color, its brilliance, its divine heaviness. I work with any enterprise that will increase my stock - which is considerable.

Permalink to Comment

8. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 9:19 AM writes...

"Starting material for functionalized gold nanoparticles" sounds reasonable

Permalink to Comment

9. Morten G on December 10, 2012 9:23 AM writes...

Two standard gold bars is 54.7 pounds... But now that I've had a look at the article it says that it is 30 to 70 pounds of gold depending on purity so it more likely to be about 70 pounds of pure gold (chemistry view of the world vs rest of the world view of the world). On the other hand Pfizer might have said "54.7 pounds" and then some "clever" bugger went "Well, is that 14 carat or 24 carat gold? Maybe they meant 18k but if it's actually 24k then there's more gold!". Unlikely though.

Permalink to Comment

10. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 9:26 AM writes...

They purchased a company called Powderject many years ago who were developing a vaccine delivery vehicle based on gold particles. If that technology is still alive then a decent quantity of gold would be needed for testing...

Permalink to Comment

11. Goldmember on December 10, 2012 9:31 AM writes...

Dr. Evil, can I paint his yoo-hoo gold? It's kind of my thing, you know.

Permalink to Comment

12. newnickname on December 10, 2012 9:54 AM writes...

Medieval alchemists always seemed to require a little bit of gold from their patrons to seed their attempts to convert base metals into more gold. Some got out of town with the gold, some scammers got caught and ended up with their head on a pike.

Modern Big Pharma sometimes needs to seed their Phase 1-2-3 results with a little bit of "gold" to get their drugs approved and to generate more gold.

Maybe the missing stash was used to generate some favorable results from clinicians or to gild the palm of a reviewer or two?

Permalink to Comment

13. X-Sarnie on December 10, 2012 10:28 AM writes...

When the Sandwich site was closed I personally discarded well over £5000 worth of chemicals, as we were told that the entire chemical store of commercial bottles was going to be destroyed.

I heard also that about £50000 of flow hydrogenation catalysts were also binned

I don't know how much that gold is worth, but if the same policy was adopted at St. Louis then I bet a lot more stuff was destroyed/wasted, and that amount of gold is a drop in the ocean to the total amount they lost.

Plus, how would they sell this gold dust anyway? Melt it down into one amorphous lump, and nip down to Cash4Gold?

Permalink to Comment

14. Office Supplies on December 10, 2012 10:39 AM writes...

@12 That much gold is worth somewhere around a million dollars. I imagine you could get someone to melt it down into nice bars (or maybe commemorative coins) for a small cut.

Permalink to Comment

15. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 10:42 AM writes...

Here is what Oxford Univeristy site talks about their spin off (

PowderJect Pharmaceuticals Plc - part of novartis ag

Originally spun out in 1993, PowderJect Phamaceuticals is a vaccine, drug and diagnostics delivery company specialising in the needle-free, pain-free injection of drugs, biophamaceuticals, conventional and DNA Vaccines and diagnostics in dry powder form. In 2003, PowderJect was acquired Chiron Corporation for $800m.

Chiron was subsequently bought out by Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.

Permalink to Comment

16. Rhenium on December 10, 2012 10:44 AM writes...

A student mentioned this on Friday. On today's inorganic final I ask them how to smuggle it out of the lab. Hint: Think George de Hevesy. :)

Permalink to Comment

17. Cope-acetic on December 10, 2012 10:48 AM writes...

They probably gave it to William Devane.

Permalink to Comment

18. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 10:53 AM writes...

#14 - apologies this is correct, Pfizer purchased PowderMed which had previously been spun out from PowderJect

Permalink to Comment

19. Bruce Hamilton on December 10, 2012 11:02 AM writes...

Perhaps they were planning to merge with Ascension Alchemy?.

Permalink to Comment

20. Bruce Hamilton on December 10, 2012 11:02 AM writes...

Perhaps they were planning to merge with Ascension Alchemy?.

Permalink to Comment

21. A Nonny Mouse on December 10, 2012 11:15 AM writes...

There was a scam going on at a Beecham's plant in Spain where they made the gold containing anti arthritic Auranofin; the plant was basically left on its own to function as it was only there for transfer pricing reasons.

The people in the plant stated that the production yield was lower than was actually obtained, but they were doing a smaller batch size and skimming off the gold powder. It was eventually found out be the new owners when they did a further investigation (also found enough "spare" lightbulbs to light up the nearby city).

Permalink to Comment

22. milkshaken on December 10, 2012 11:23 AM writes...

@15: I would have smuggled it out in the thermos-insulated coffee mug, and pour some yucky coffee on top. That quantity of gold has a combined volume about 1 liter so one should be able to do it in 3-4 rounds

Permalink to Comment

23. V Mcmahon on December 10, 2012 11:27 AM writes...

Missing? You can find him here!

Permalink to Comment

24. Queen of the Lab on December 10, 2012 11:27 AM writes...

I believe they were going to use it to plate the toilet seats in the executive washrooms.

Permalink to Comment

25. Rosalind on December 10, 2012 11:30 AM writes...

Gold particles are typically used in integrity testing viral filters used for biologics purification processes. Although usually it's provided as a colloid rather than gold dust, a lot of the processes in St Louis were fairly home-brewed and it wouldn't completely surprise me to hear that they were cooking up their own gold test solution.

*Disclaimer: I was legacy Wyeth.

Permalink to Comment

26. exGlaxoid on December 10, 2012 11:31 AM writes...

When we were cleaning out old buildings and trying to donate some equipment to schools and universities, one of the visiting professors saw our dumpster, which was full of lab supplies, non-capital equipment (hotplates, etc), and office supplies, most of this was new or quite usable. We were lucky to be able to donate even a small part, which was worth at least $125,000, but the lost value was in the millions. I saw one $1+ million automated screening machine getting scraped only months after it was installed. So while it may seem a lot, it did not seem to matter during mergers and layoffs.

I also learned that 5000 to 20,000 bottles of chemicals, including many rare intermediates, expensive boronic acids, catalysts, and other valuable compounds were sent to waste, where they likely cost $50+ apiece to dispose of them.

Big companies don't seem to have any interest in recycling, recovering or even donating old materials. They would much rather focus on higher value operations like buying worthless biotechs for millions of dollars. CEO's don't have the time to fritter away money in smaller amounts.

Permalink to Comment

27. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 11:50 AM writes...

#24 - there's absolutely no way you would need such a huge quantity of gold for such a process

Permalink to Comment

28. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 12:04 PM writes...

As an employee of the company that owns Celite, I feel obliged to mention that gold dust wouldn't be remotely as effective at filtration as our material >_>

Permalink to Comment

29. BOB on December 10, 2012 12:10 PM writes...

50lbs * 16oz * $1650/oz = $1.32M dollars.

Permalink to Comment

30. Sili on December 10, 2012 12:26 PM writes...

Having to use up you budget before the end of the year, if you don't want to see it reduced next year.

(Why yes, I do indeed work in the public sector, why do you ask?)

Permalink to Comment

31. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on December 10, 2012 12:27 PM writes...

BOB: gold is measured (and bought and sold) in troy ounces. Your numbers are off by quite a bit. It is 16 avoirdupois ounces per pound. There are fewer troy ounces per pound. One avoirdupois ounce = 28.3495231 grams. One troy ounce = 31.1034768 grams.

Permalink to Comment

32. Jon on December 10, 2012 12:27 PM writes...

Wrong conversion, assuming the 50 lbs quoted was avoirdupois and not troy. That'd be 800 oz avoirdupois of gold. At a conversion of 175/192 avoirdupois to troy, that's 729 troy ounces. At $1650 an ounce, that'd be $1.20M dollars.

Permalink to Comment

33. Been there, done that on December 10, 2012 12:29 PM writes...

I found the gold!

Permalink to Comment

34. Yazeran on December 10, 2012 12:29 PM writes...

#27 - Well I suppose that depends on 2 things:
1) The number of exec's
2) the size of their behinds..



Plan: To go to Mars one day with a hammer.

Permalink to Comment

35. ROGI on December 10, 2012 1:03 PM writes...

#29 BOB. FYI, Gold, Silver and feathers, (yes feathers), are measured in Troy, not Avoirdupois, ounces. One Troy pound is 12 troy ounces (31g vs 28.6 g for a Adv ounce.

Permalink to Comment

36. Morten G on December 10, 2012 1:12 PM writes...

The article says that they bought it last year for $700'000.

Permalink to Comment

37. Yancey Ward on December 10, 2012 1:45 PM writes...

I think that it is gold is the only reason it makes the news. I wonder how much platinum or palladium has disappeared from research labs over the years?

Permalink to Comment

38. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 1:51 PM writes...

result of an experiment actually performed between gold and celite?

Permalink to Comment

39. optimisstic on December 10, 2012 2:02 PM writes...

They got it to have a ´golden future´. Ah! the future went to dust.

Permalink to Comment

40. The Iron Chemist on December 10, 2012 2:04 PM writes...

I hope that no one OG's on the stuff.

Permalink to Comment

41. Queen of the Lab on December 10, 2012 2:23 PM writes...

Yazeran, are we speaking literally, or metaphorically?

Permalink to Comment

42. Anon on December 10, 2012 2:57 PM writes...


Permalink to Comment

43. Anon on December 10, 2012 3:02 PM writes...

So those crooks are not content with drug fraud. Now they want to turn to gold smuggling too? Disgusting.

Permalink to Comment

44. Fleetwood Mac on December 10, 2012 3:18 PM writes...

Rock on gold dust Pfizer
Take your nanoparticles, dig your grave
Heartless challenge
Pick your target, I'll pray

Wake up in the morning
See your Celite, column go down
Lousy managers pick their drugs
But they never take the blame, take it

Ooh, did it make it you cry, make you break down
Shatter your round bottom flask?
And is it over now, do you know how?
Pick up the pieces and record yield?

Permalink to Comment

45. Anonymous on December 10, 2012 4:55 PM writes...

Golden parachutes don't grow on trees!

Permalink to Comment

46. Colonel Boris on December 10, 2012 5:52 PM writes...

Wonder if it was one of those occasions when Sigma-Aldrich came to visit offering 40% discounts for things ordered that day? We found one lot of their gold was then priced at below market value, but couldn't convince the supervisior to lend us Fr. 50,000 to play that one...

Permalink to Comment

47. Sisyphus on December 10, 2012 7:40 PM writes...

@ #16,Rhenium: I would have mixed it 50/50 with something palatable like applesauce or pudding and eaten it each day with lunch. The next morning, have a cup of coffee and start panning for gold.

Permalink to Comment

48. Nile on December 10, 2012 7:48 PM writes...

Other contributors have nailed the value - or at least, given good estimates of it - at $1.2 Million.

You can retire on that, if you live a quiet life. It's not a luxurious rest-of-your-life in a condo.

Now factor in the cost of fencing the stuff, and laundering the money: you'd need to be good, just to keep half a million.

A really good placement-and-layering operation will cost less than 30%, but that sort of operation works on larger sums and very few Pfizer employees have access to the people doing it - and fewer still would know how to, or have any chance of completing the transaction with their money - and, in that line of business, with their lives.

And factor in the social cost making an obvious 'getaway' that will attract investigation - or any attention that might attract investigation from a bounty-hunter.

Meanwhile, everyone who's worked for Pfizer on that site will come under a discreeet monitoring exercise of bank transactions, lifestyle and visible assets, every year or so, forever. It may be cursory, most times, but it'll always be there.

Permalink to Comment

49. David S. on December 11, 2012 4:24 AM writes...

Is gold used in Chinese Traditional Medicine ?

Permalink to Comment

50. noko marie on December 11, 2012 7:43 AM writes...

Didn't it get poured over Viserys's head?

Permalink to Comment

51. eugene on December 11, 2012 9:47 AM writes...

"And factor in the social cost making an obvious 'getaway' that will attract investigation - or any attention that might attract investigation from a bounty-hunter."

I don't think it will be much of a problem if the criminal is smart. A PhD is a good indication of that. Learn metal-smithing and make bad earrings, then sell them at different pawn shops over time or overseas trips. Take a cruise in the Caymann Islands and make a small deposit. The guys who stole millions of dollars in Canadian two dollar coins from an armored car when they were released in 1996, haven't been caught yet. And the government was bragging about how they were going to catch them because it would be too obvious if someone used two dollar coins to pay for everything. I bet they made a plan not to use more than a few a day each and got off easily.

Anyways, I see that no one mentioned the use of the gold dust in one of the most obvious ways: setting up a closed tub and some sort of suctioning and spray device and then starting each day of your life from now on with a golden shower. Eventually, you'd lose most of it through some cracks or something, but you're guaranteed a golden shower for the next twenty years.

Permalink to Comment

52. Rhenium on December 11, 2012 11:07 AM writes...

@ #47: Sisyphus: Wow! I hadn't thought of that! Since an ounce of gold dust is $1700, I'd happily chow down, although I might let a septic tank "pre-concentrate" the gold for me. ;)

Permalink to Comment

53. Golding on December 11, 2012 1:12 PM writes...

I have gold dust and bars for sale interested individuals or corporations should contact me on

Permalink to Comment

54. Anonymous on December 11, 2012 4:16 PM writes...

Knowing Pfizer, I'm guessing they were planning on turning it into lead.

Permalink to Comment

55. Poinsy on December 11, 2012 8:47 PM writes...

It could have been stolen by Dr. Horrible using some sort of trans-matter ray. The guy does have a Ph.D. in Horribleness.
(for reference: )

Permalink to Comment

56. michael hart on December 12, 2012 2:41 PM writes...

Some years ago I read that gold particles were used in a shot-gun technique for introducing foreign DNA into plant cells in a relatively crude but effective manner.

I think it might even have been in New Scientist, when I still bought it regularly.

Permalink to Comment

57. flavor on December 12, 2012 3:34 PM writes...

Maybe they were trying to get into this market
Here's a fun idea: why not buy them a couple of capsules filled with gold leaf that, once consumed, will turn their excrement into shiny nuggets of wealth? ":

Permalink to Comment

58. Sili on December 13, 2012 10:07 AM writes...

Knowing Pfizer, I'm guessing they were planning on turning it into lead.
Did Bunsen ever patent his way of making gold into cottage cheese? Permalink to Comment

59. Bruce Grant on December 13, 2012 10:11 AM writes...

I was a little surprised that the WSJ cited you yesterday as claiming the Au was "not toxic," as the UpToDate database lists a fairly hefty array of adverse effects on a range of organ systems ( some of us are antique enough to remember all too well the recall of Ridaura (auranofin).

Permalink to Comment

60. Anonymous on December 17, 2012 8:23 AM writes...

@BOB: The article says the value is around $700,000. Working backwards, assuming your figure of $1650/oz is correct, that would be a little over 35 troy pounds, which comes to about 29 avoirdupois pounds.

The fifty-pound calculation appears to have been made under the assumption that this was jewelry-grade gold alloy. (Most of the chemists here are assuming a rather more pure form of gold...) The article cites "experts" (Wikipedia would mark that up with {{who}}) for a figure of 30-70 pounds.

The 30 is probably 29 rounded off (or maybe the price of gold changed by enough to shift the figure that far since the article was penned, or maybe it's the dollar figure that's rounded), and the 70 is presumably an estimate of what $700000 worth of low-carat jewelry alloy would weigh, avoirdupois.

Permalink to Comment

61. Lindsay on January 4, 2013 2:06 AM writes...

Bruce Grant @ #59: That link doesn't mention elemental gold powder.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry