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Chemists tapping birches for 'white gold'
DULUTH, Minn. -- Chemist Pavel Krasutsky calls it nature's "white gold."
Betulin, a powdery substance in the outer bark of the birch tree, has been shown to help wounds heal faster and cut inflammation.
Many cosmetic companies, touting it as a skin toner and restorer, add birch bark extract to various products. And a birch bark compound, betulinic acid, is being tested as a treatment for melanoma and other serious diseases.
Yet despite its medicinal potentials, the white bark is usually burned once the birch trees are harvested for lumber.
"This is a miracle which nature synthesized for us and we are burning this miracle like cheap fuel," Krasutsky said.
But that's changing, thanks to a partnership between a paper company, an energy company and University of Minnesota-Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute, which houses Krasutsky's laboratory.
NaturNorth Technologies, formed in 2000 by NRRI, Potlatch Corp. and Synertec, has developed a patented process to cost-effectively isolate pure betulin and other compounds from birch bark in large quantities. Building on university research, NaturNorth scientists also have patented a way to convert betulin to betulinic acid.
The partners are hoping the demand for birch bark compound will grow and turn their venture into a profitable one.
Potlatch, a wood products and paper producer, can contribute raw material -- at least 100,000 pounds of birch bark daily. The bark yields about 10 percent betulin, "so we literally can get tons of this stuff a day," said Robert Carlson, a university chemistry professor who is working on the project.
Once the compounds are isolated, scientists can produce new derivatives to expand the range of potential uses. That's how NaturNorth creates betulinic acid from betulin.
Betulinic acid has been explored as a potential treatment for skin cancer for more than a decade. Betulin, its derivatives and other birch bark compounds also are being tested for effectiveness in treating HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and respiratory syncytial virus, which can cause severe cold-like symptoms and pneumonia.
The bark compounds and derivatives also are being tested for effectiveness in crop disease management and preventing fungus growth on golf course turf.
In addition to their other patents, Carlson, Krasutsky and colleagues have patented the use of betulin to treat the blisters caused by herpes, and have other patent applications pending.
Carlson said NaturNorth hopes to supply betulinic acid and its derivatives to other scientists doing clinical tests on disease treatments, and, ultimately -- if the tests are successful -- becoming the supplier when the products are commercialized.
No human testing has been conducted yet on betulinic acid as a treatment for melanoma, HIV or RSV, he said, but those tests are planned once researchers get regulatory approval.
A Russian company, Birch World Ltd. of Moscow, also has developed a method of isolating betulin from birch bark and has been producing commercial quantities for nine months, said company vice president V. Vdovenko. Birch World sells cosmetics and food supplements containing betulin in Europe and Japan, but has no North American customers, he said.
NaturNorth isn't looking for big profits anytime soon. Gibson said the company expects it will take five to 10 years before it's generating as much as $10 million in annual revenue.