Beta-glucans have been called nature’s super-medicine. Norwegian researchers have been pioneers in producing these substances from the cell walls of everyday baker’s yeast. Beta-glucans are now widely used in the aquaculture industry and veterinary medicine, as well as in dietary supplements and cosmetics.
The true potential of beta-glucans has barely been touched upon, asserts Rolf Einar Engstad, Chief Scientific Officer at the Tromsø-based company Biotec Pharmacon. He headed a project which over the past several years has enhanced the understanding of how beta-glucans work and how they can be applied.
Promising medicinal effects on humans
“Since the mid-1980s we have known that these substances fight infection and have a bearing on the body’s ability to kill cancerous cells,” explains Dr Engstad, “but we never knew why. With funding from the Programme for User-driven Research-based Innovation (BIA) under the Research Council of Norway, we have carried out a project that gives us insight into the working mechanisms of beta-glucans.” Biotec Pharmacon received assistance from Rikshospitalet University Hospital in Oslo during the project.
“When we started the project we didn’t know whether the substance needed to be taken up in the blood or if its effect was local,” recalls Anders Sandvik, who earned his PhD in beta-glucans.
“To find out, we conducted experiments on rats, introducing bacterial components into the blood to see what would happen. We determined that animals receiving beta-glucan orally acquired protection that was at least as good as rats that received an injection into their bloodstream.”
This was a promising development for the Tromsø company, which had already found that its product, a beta-glucan gel, was effective in helping wounds to heal quickly.
Storage a challenge
“Some time into the project,” adds Dr Engstad, “we experienced problems maintaining product strength and efficacy. It turned out the gel became unstable after a year in storage. So we added in a new substance during the study that restored the gel’s healing effect.”
Now that the project has concluded, Biotec Pharmacon is working on a beta-glucan formula that remains stable during storage.
On the market in 2012
“We’re also examining the possibility of developing the healing gel under the statutory framework for medical devices rather than as a medicine,” says Dr Engstad. “The requirements for clinical documentation of the product are less stringent, and we could get it to market far sooner.”
“I believe that in the course of 2012 we will be ready to launch it.”
“This will be a unique product that can be used for treating all types of wounds: surgical incisions, diabetic ulcers and bedsores,” says Dr Engstad. “There is nothing on the global market that heals wounds in the same way.”
Asthma and allergy treatments next
Biotec Pharmacon does not plan to stop at wound healing. The firm eyes even greater potential for beta-glucan ahead.
“Over the past few years, we’ve come to understand that beta-glucan has an effect on our innate immune system, which is the first line of defence in people and in practically every animal. It takes care of 99 per cent of all invasions we are exposed to, and it engages before the human body’s adaptive immune system manages to react.”
Many disorders are related to this innate immune system, such as allergies, asthma, chronic fatigue syndromes and cancer.
Biotec Pharmacon has been cooperating with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for many years. The Americans have done studies using the beta-glucan from Tromsø on US cancer patients and found that it contributes to the healing effect of antibodies introduced to patients.
Funding has made the difference
“The several years of funding under the BIA programme has put Biotec Pharmacon in a position to carry out basic research and product development at the same time and has helped the company through a critical phase to where it is now,” says Dr Engstad. He also feels that winning funding from the Research Council of Norway is a stamp of quality.
“It takes a lot of money to carry out studies of potential medicines like ours. Now we’ve submitted a patent application for an exciting finding we’ve made in connection with preventing asthma, but at the moment we don’t have the financial muscle to take its development to the next level.”