Crab shells used to produce cheaper pharmaceuticals
By Ben Coxworth
February 14, 2012
Crabs and lobsters ... they're not just for eating, anymore. Chitin, one of the main components of their exoskeletons, has recently found use in things such as self-healing car paint, biologically-compatible transistors, flu virus filters, and a possible replacement for plastic. Now, something else can be added to that list. Researchers from the Vienna University of Technology are developing a technique in which chitin is being used to cheaply produce a currently very-expensive source of antiviral drugs.
Many presently-used antiviral drugs are derived from N-Acetylneuraminic acid, also known as NANA. The substance can synthesized or obtained from natural sources, but in either case it is very costly - at about 2,000 euro (US$2,626) a gram, it is approximately 50 times more valuable than gold.
To produce cheaper NANA, the Vienna scientists introduced bacterial genes into a very common fungus called Trichoderma. Normally, the fungus feeds on chitin and breaks it down into monomer amino sugars. With the addition of the new genes, however, a couple of extra steps are added to the process, with the chitin ending up as - you guessed it - N-Acetylneuraminic acid.
The bioengineered Trichoderma can be cultivated in bioreactors, and finding enough food for it shouldn't be a problem ... chitin is the second-most common biopolymer on earth, occurring not only in crab and lobster shells, but also in insect exoskeletons, snail shells, cephalopods (such as squid), and some fungi.
The reportedly eco-friendly process has been patented, and the researchers hope to see industrial-level production of cheap NANA beginning soon.
Source: Vienna University of Technology
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