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Tricky Business

The crystal form of a drug can be the secret to its success

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5:35pm, August 17, 2004

In one of Kurt Vonnegut's science fiction novels, a scientist creates a form of ice that doesn't melt until it reaches 114.4°F. Called Ice-9, this imaginary crystal takes over the world, as all of Earth's waters, and life itself, freeze solid. What endows Ice-9 with such unusual properties is the unique configuration of the stacked water molecules. Although Ice-9 of Cat's Cradle (1963, Holt, Rinehart and Winston) is pure fantasy, the concept of a molecule assuming multiple crystal structures—or polymorphs—is real, and the consequences can be dramatic. One polymorph of carbon provides black and slippery graphite, another is hard, transparent diamond. A blue pigment used in ink-jet printers has either a red or green tint, depending on the pigment's crystal structure. Even crystallized cocoa butter has different polymorphs; some cause the chocolate to melt in your mouth more quickly than others.

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