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Christmas trees to yield key Tamiflu ingredient

Biolyse Pharma Corp., a closely held Canadian company that extracts chemicals from plants, plans to use used Christmas trees to extract the chemical for making Tamiflu, the drug that treat bird flu.//

The trees contain shikimic acid in their pine, spruce and fir needles, Ontario-based Biolyse said today in a statement. The acid is used in Roche Holding AG's Tamiflu and is mainly extracted from star anise trees in China, Biolyse said.

Tamiflu is being perceived as the first line of defence against a possible pandemic outbreak of bird flu, which has been devastating chicken populations across Southeast Asia and parts of Europe.

So far, the H5N1 virus, which usually strikes people in close contact with diseased fowl or their droppings, has infected an estimated 130 people, killing 70. The worry is that H5N1 will undergo a genetic mutation with a human seasonal influenza virus, morphing into a deadly strain that could jump between people like the common cold.

After being rejected as a Tamiflu supplier by Swiss drug maker F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., which has a patent for the drug, Biolyse thought of making shikimik acid. The price of shikimik acid has soared to more than $500 (U.S.) a kg from $45 in the past 12 months on shortages of Tamiflu and skyrocketing demand, with various countries clamouring to stockpile the drug.

Biolyse specializes in extracting chemicals from plants and biomaterials at its plant in St. Catharines, Ontario. Now makes a generic version of the cancer drug paclitaxel from yew trees.

“Our research has shown that 2-to-3 per cent of the biomass from various pine, spruce and fir trees is extractible shikimic acid,” Biolyse principal Claude Mercure said yesterday.

Once the process becomes commercialized, the company is aiming to eventually produce 1 one to three tons of shikimic acid a month.

To get started, next month it will receive some 500,000 Christmas trees to be donated by
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