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This white powder does not taste or smell like anything, says Uldis Peipiņš, Lead Researcher of the Faculty of Materials Science and Applied Chemistry of Riga Technical University (RTU), who is encouraging us to taste betulin — a valuable substance hidden in birch bark. It can help fight severe illnesses, improve your well-being and appearance, and keep food fresh longer.
After a long winter, many people drink birch sap to make their bodies stronger and to purify themselves. The penchant for birch sap inherited since ancient times has been turned into a business by active Latvian companies, e.g. Sula Ltd., and Kainaiži Ltd., which sell not only sap, but also beverages, syrups, even wine made from it. Whereas AS Madara Cosmetics, a cosmetics manufacturer, replaces water with birch sap in its anti-aging cosmetics line, and its positive effect on human skin was proven thanks to in vitro studies carried out at the Faculty of Biology of University of Latvia. The company claims that it is the first anti-aging cosmetics line based on birch sap. Betulin obtained from birch bark — a substance that makes bark white — is not yet widely used, even though it is being actively researched at the scientific institutions in Latvia as well as elsewhere in the world; it is also being produced, for instance, in China. However, compared to its Chinese counterpart, betulin produced in Latvia is cleaner and of higher quality, claims U. Peipiņš, who invented, designed, and built the equipment for producing betulin on his own. Now the equipment is used in the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology Laboratory of RTU to produce betulin for research purposes. In the future, RTU researchers want to commercialize the technology using Support for Commercialization of Research Results, a program administered by the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (LIAA). «Betulin, a substance we could offer to food, cosmetics, and food supplements companies will be commercialized. Who will do that, how it will happen, depends on the commercialization strategy,» says the researcher.
Birch bark is an industrial byproduct from manufacturing plywood and furniture, researchers do not go into woods to rip skin off trees. From the point of view of producing betulin, its resources are inexhaustible, says U. Peipiņš. «More than the amount of water in the Baltic Sea,» he draws a comparison. To obtain betulin, bark in the RTU laboratory is grinded, a solvent is used to extract its valuable substance, the liquid is separated from birch bark grist, from which betulin is secreted. «Betulin is a natural product, and we must deliver it to people in the most environmentally friendly way. Our policy from the moment we began our research has been — no harmful substances and the cheapest possible technology that consumes as little energy as possible. Only human and environmentally friendly substances and techniques are used to obtain the cleanest betulin with high added value. You can taste it at any technological stage. Our biggest asset is a relatively easy method for refining betulin until it turns into a white powder with high basic substance content. Admixture of other substances is so negligible that it is not considered a mixture — it is a pure chemical of a certain quality,» boasts the RTU researcher.
It has been tested for heavy metals because researchers do not know where the birch tree was growing. The presence of heavy metals was not detected. «In the future we will be developing betulin production and testing all batches. It is essential when using betulin as food and food supplements,» U. Peipiņš points out.
The valuable properties of betulin allow for its wide use. «Betulin obtained from birch bark, and its natural compounds help maintain the body’s immunity, preventing the formation of malignant cells, serving as a preventative measure. Betulin is also used in producing medical cosmetics. It has been proven to improve the healing of microscarring and skin regeneration ability. Its capacity to regenerate liver has also been proven,» says Māris Turks, Academician and Professor of RTU Faculty of Materials Science and Applied Chemistry. As for food production, for example, adding betulin to dough results in bread that stays soft for longer, continues U. Peipiņš, adding that smell and taste do not change. This substance could prolong storage life of other groceries, for example milk, meat and meat products. Research has been started in collaboration with Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies (LLU) on the use of betulin in food production.
They are also researching its potential to beat rare oncological diseases — an ongoing interdisciplinary study in collaboration with Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) will conclude in 2019. In this study, betulin obtained in the RTU laboratory serves as a raw material to create betulinic acid and new derivatives. M. Turks notes that betulin’s oxidized forms — betulinic acid and betulonic acid — have the highest value- added. «Birch bark has betulinic acid, but there is not much of it. The economically profitable way would be to obtain betulin from birch bark, then synthesize it into betulinic acid and betulonic acid — make the same thing nature does, but only using a flask. We have patented the purification process, because, if we want to position the product as interchangeable with its natural counterpart, we must guarantee that it has no other chemical residues, there is only «the power of nature,» explains the professor.
RTU gives the new derivatives to RSU, where its researchers check the biological activity of the newly synthesized substances. They have checked several dozen of newly synthesized substances on various tumor cells for anticancer and other toxic activity properties, says Reinis Vilšķērsts, Assistant Professor of RSU and leading researcher of Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis (OSI). «The goal is to find compounds that would kill tumor cells without damaging healthy cells. So far, we have found one substance that is practically harmless to healthy cells, but it can kill tumor cells. It is interesting that new betulinic acid derivatives selectively show cytotoxic activity against several types of tumor cells,» informs R. Vilšķērsts. There are also derivatives that kill both tumor cells and healthy cells. It is important to take note of that if you are a researcher — it gives information on how to continue synthesizing substances. Next, the collaboration project envisages to research how compounds affect angiogenesis — how substances can affect the creation of new blood vessels. «When a tumor is growing, new blood vessels are created so that tumor cells can feed on them and receive oxygen. If substances suppressed this process, it could affect the further advancement of clinical or preclinical studies. It is also important to find out the metabolic stability of the substances so that they would not degrade immediately after having been injected in the body and would be able to do their job — kill tumor cells,» the researcher continues.
Developing new betulinic acid forms and its derivatives is one of the fields pharmacologists in other countries are also working on. The problem is that betulinic acid is poorly soluble and it has a low bioavailability, hence the need to find a state that would help achieve the necessary therapeutic window and be effective, says R. Vilšķērsts.
«It may seem like nothing special — rare tumors, probably only a handful of people have them. That is false. Tumors are considered rare if fewer than five patients per 10 000 people have them. However, there are a lot of rare tumors. Of more than 16 million oncology patients worldwide 4.3 million have rare tumors. As much as 25 % of all tumors are rare. In addition, they are poorly researched and there are no suitable medications. Which makes patients’ five-year survival rate even 20 % lower than of those who have more common tumors,» R. Vilšķērsts justifies the immediate importance of their research.
The derivatives synthesized by RTU researchers work well on multiple brain tumor types. Anticancer properties of all derivatives are compared to betulinic acid properties. So far scientific literature shows that betulinic acid works well on melanoma, brain, ovary tumors, whereas, for example, breast, colon, and kidney tumors are unsusceptible to this substance.
R. Vilšķērsts admits that every pharmacologist’s dream is to see on pharmacies stock new medications that had been developed with his participation. There is still a long and expensive way to go before betulinic acid derivatives become such a medication. However, even though turning natural substances into a valuable health product is difficult, it is not at all impossible.