Biolyse Pharma Corp, a closely held Canadian company that extracts chemicals from plants, plans to use half a million Christmas trees discarded in Ontario to mine the chemical found in drugs that treat avian influenza. The trees contain shikimic acid in their pine, spruce and fir needles, the company said. The acid is used in Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu and is mainly extracted from star anise trees in China, Biolyse said.
Demand for drugs such as Tamiflu has surged in the past three months, when US scientists reported finding similarities between the bird flu strain in Asia, which has killed at least 71 people since 2003, and the Spanish flu that killed as many as 50 million in 1918 and 1919. The price of the acid has risen more than ten-fold to $600 a kilogram in a year, Biolyse said.
“There is a demand for shikimic acid in the world right now, and it’s a very pressing demand,’’ Claude Mercure, a project coordinator with Biolyse, said. Biolyse will get the trees in January from a Toronto-based firm called Gro-Bark Ltd, which recycles forest products. Biolyse has a production capacity of about two tons a month and plans to get more tree needles from forestry companies, Mr Mercure said.
“It’s quite possible that needles of this Christmas tree would have a fairly high concentration,’’ says Cornell University chemistry professor Bruce Ganem. The main problem is in finding a simple way to extract it, he said.
Chinese production of shikimic acid is limited because the star anise tree takes eight years to grow to maturity and can only be harvested for two months a year, Mr Mercure said.
“Whatever is produced in China right now is minimal to the world needs,’’ he added. Biolyse plans to sell the acid to companies and government who aren’t bound by Roche’s patents on Tamiflu and that wish to make generic versions of the drug. The spread of bird-flu this year has attracted attention to shikimic acid, so more companies are seeking to extract the chemical, Prof Ganem said.
The price of the acid probably will fall as production increases, as happened with paclitaxel in the past five years, he said.
Biolyse also makes the cancer drug paclitaxel. In May, the company won a Supreme Court patent- infringement case against Bristol-Myers Squibb, which sued Biolyse on the grounds that its drug was a copy of Bristol’s Taxol. Biolyse extracts paclitaxel from a yew bush that is common in Canada, instead of the rare Pacific yew bushes where the chemical was first discovered.