White Pine Needles Yield Valuable Tamiflu Material - Shikimic Acid
April 17, 2022

White Pine Needles Yield Valuable Tamiflu Material - Shikimic Acid

A little-known raw material used in the most widely used antiviral flu medicine comes from the fruit of trees native to China. It turns out it also comes from pine trees in many of our backyards!

Researchers at the University of Maine at Orono say they've found a new and relatively easy way to extract shikimic acid -- a key ingredient in the drug Tamiflu -- from pine tree needles.

Shikimic acid can be removed from the needles of white pine, red pine and other conifer trees simply by boiling the needles in water, said chemistry professor Ray Fort Jr. Additional testing is needed, and it remains to be seen if there's demand for the product or if the process can applied commercially in the private sector, he said.

But the extracted acid could be valuable because Tamiflu is the world's most widely used antiviral drug for treating swine flu, bird flu and seasonal influenza. The major source of shikimic acid now is the star anise, an unusual star-shaped fruit that grows on small trees native to China.

Swiss drug giant Roche Holding AG holds the patent on Tamiflu, which is produced by Roche's manufacturing partners.

If Fort's research is successful, pine trees could serve as another source of shikimic acid to manufacture Tamiflu while also providing our domestic forest products industry a new source of revenue. The research has been funded from a variety of sources, including the Maine Technology Institute, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the university's chemistry department.

According to various scientific studies, strong demand for Tamiflu in recent years put pressure on the supply of shikimic acid, with a shortage of star anise viewed as a major production problem in producing Tamiflu.

Star anise has been used for centuries for a licorice-like flavor in Chinese foods and in liqueurs such as Pernod. But most of the supply these days goes to provide shikimic acid for making Tamiflu.

Julie Carrier, a professor who headed the research, thinks shikimic acid could have other commercial applications beyond Tamiflu down the road. For instance, maybe it could be used to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms on foods.

"These natural molecules could have a host of other applications," she said. "We're in a period of growth in these natural markets, and I'm sure shikimic acid is going to find applications we aren't even dreaming of right now."


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