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, using 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 synthesised for us and we are burning this miracle like cheap fuel,” Krasutsky said.
But things are changing, thanks to a partnership between a paper company, an energy company and University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), which houses Krasutsky’s laboratory.
NaturNorth Technologies, formed in 2000 by NRRI, Potlatch Corporation and Synertec, has developed a patented process to isolate pure betulin and other compounds from birch bark in large quantities. Building on university research, NaturNorth scientists have also patented a way to convert betulin to betulinic acid.
The partners, whose venture is based in Duluth, Minnesota, are hoping the demand for birch bark compound will grow and turn their venture into a profitable one.
“It could be a nice income stream. The university is … getting less state support, so we’re looking at ways to get better value out of its intellectual property,” said Michael Lalich, NRRI director.
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% 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.
Although birch bark extracts already are used in some cosmetics – including products by Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, Almay and many smaller companies - NaturNorth offers the pure compounds found in the bark.
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 (RSV), 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.
NaturNorth is not expecting a quick return on its investment. The company expects it will take five to 10 years before it is generating as much as €8.6m in annual revenue.