From shrimp shells to cancer cells: a biotech challenge

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on October 27, 2017

Chitosans can aid in the transport of drugs to their target sites, such as brain or cancer cells. They are well tolerated by the human body and easily biodegradable   -  Kateryna Kon/

Global consortium applying chitosans in varied fields; UoH among participants

A wound healing product that leaves no scars, nanocapsules that can deliver drugs to targeted cancer cells, and customised bacteria that can help in bulk production of specific chitosans in an eco-friendly process — these are among the promising outcomes of Nano3Bio, a global initiative.

Driven by a 22-member international consortium and €9-million funding from the European Commission, the project has made rapid progress in using biotech processes to produce chitosans, the basic raw material that finds varied applications in medicine, agriculture, cosmetics, textiles, paper, etc.

The University of Hyderabad (UoH) is among the eight institutes and 14 industrial SMEs in the Nano BioEngineering of BioInspired BioPolymenrs (Nano3Bio) initiative, launched in 2013 from India, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

Modified chitin

Chitosans are a modified version of the polymer chitin, obtained from the shells of shrimps and other crustaceans. A major challenge for the consortium was to come up with an eco-friendly process to mass produce chitosans, as extracting chitin from shrimps involves a process that’s not very eco-friendly. Therefore, the research groups developed a biotech method to synthesise it.

A Belgian group cloned genes, put them in a bug and produced chitosan. It’s now possible to design customised bacteria, fungi or algae and use them to convert chitin into novel high-quality chitosans, explained Appa Rao Podile, Vice-Chancellor of UoH, which hosted a consortium meet recently.

Nano3Bio has announced a protocol for the production of chitosans with defined structures. Among the immediate applications, it listed a specific chitosan for finishing seeds, to protect them from pests and diseases and to yield richer harvests. Another application is a anti-microbial, film-forming agent in spray plaster, accelerating scar-free wound healing.

The participants also discussed specific chitosan to aid in the transport of drugs to target sites, such as brain or cancer cells. A big advantage is that chitosans are well tolerated by the human body and easily biodegradable.

“These are impressive results,” said Bruno M Moerschbacher, biologist at the University of Munster and project coordinator of Nano3Bio. “However, the future road still appears to be challenging. For example, it will be important to further determine which biological organisms are able to produce exactly what quality and quantity of chitosan required for specific applications.”

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Published on October 27, 2017
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