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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 Toronto-based Gro-Bark, a forestry recycling company.

Most shikimic acid is now extracted from star anise, the fruit of a slow-growing evergreen in China, which is harvested for several months each year. That's why Roche's production of Tamiflu takes about 12 months and there isn't nearly enough of the drug to go around for government stockpiling.

Biolyse hopes its process will be more viable as the particular species of pine, spruce and fir that it is working with are far more abundant than the seedlings of star anise.

Biolyse has no plans to make Tamiflu unless Ottawa grants compulsory licences under the Patent Act in a national emergency. In such a case, he said the company could produce the drug in five weeks.

In countries where Roche's patents on Tamiflu are not recognized, such as the Philippines and Thailand, Biolyse is in discussions to sell shikimic acid and provide technical assistance to manufacture the drug for use in that country.


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