A new sugar replacement, call it Stevia 3.0, tastes just like sugar and is much healthier. It’s been developed by an American company, but conceived with input from Ghent-University professor Marjan De Mey. A partnership that will clearly stick around in the future.
NutraSweet Natural tastes exactly like sugar, but lacks the bitter and metallic aftertaste you find in traditional alternative sweeteners. The result of years of research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) formed the basis for a new spin-off: Manus Bio. This company launched the product on the American market.
Imitating the genetic codes of plants
The foundations of the story were partly laid by professor Marjan De Mey (Faculty of Bioscience engineering). Working as a postdoctoral researcher at the MIT back then, she was involved in the launch of Manus Bio. These days, from Ghent, she is the scientific advisor for what has become a leading American company.
“As a researcher, my job right now and at the time with Manus Bio, involves extracting genetic codes from certain substances in plants and integrating them in a micro-organism”, explains Marjan. “We can get an incredible amount of information from plants. The way they communicate is particularly interesting: they use aromas, flavours and colours.”
In short, Marjan ‘plays’ with the genetic information determined by the aromas, flavours and colours. By imitating them in a micro-organism and consciously avoiding specific information you can make optimisations. So, in the case of Stevia 3.0: “We select the exact piece of genetic information that has no aftertaste. Then we develop bacterial strains based on those genetic codes. If you take the ingredients directly from the plants you do end up with the typical aftertaste”, she explains.
Making the world that little bit better
“Biotech researchers have one great ambition in mind: to improve human lives”, continues Marjan. “Not only at an individual level, but also in our society. Take NutraSweet Natural, for example, the first commercial product from Manus Bio: that contains a lot less calories and is much healthier than sugar, making it a potential solution for the global increase in diabetes.”
But she also mentions an important ecological advantage: “You no longer have to grow or transport plants, no chemicals are required for the extraction, you no longer depend on a crop, and so on. It is our duty to seek ways that do not put further pressure on our planet, and this is one of them.”
Manus Bio not only develops these products, it also manufactures and markets them. Besides NutraSweet Natural, the company also sells aromas to perfume businesses. It is also targeting medical applications, such as an anti-malaria medicine. Or Taxol, a cancer medicine. Marjan: “This chemotherapy for cancer patients is made with extracts from taxus hedges. Now, you need an awful lot of those hedges to produce all those medicines. You don’t have that problem at all when you use products that imitate the genetic code.”
Manus Bio is not yet manufacturing its own medicines. Marjan: “However, it is actually the intention in the long term. It is simply that the route to market is much longer and more complex in the case of medicines.”
Inspiration for Belgian companies and universities
“The company is certainly not a one-off, it’s here to stay”, confirms Marjan. “That is rather unique. Start-ups from Belgian universities often focus on one product and are then taken over by other companies. That’s not the case with Manus Bio: they already have R&D facilities in Boston and a factory in Augusta. Fundamental research, scaling up and production processes are all done in house.”
Being such a unique and inspiring story, Nele Ameloot recently organised an excursion to the factory during the Belgian trade mission to the United States. As a business developer, Nele represents 20 research groups involved in industrial biotech and green chemistry. “Belgian universities are pioneers in biotechnology”, explains Nele. “But we don’t tend to do our own manufacturing. That’s why the Manus Bio story is so inspiring: we want to show companies the relevance of a partnership between the academic and industrial world.”
“In Flanders, we have a very strong research and pilot infrastructure that is unique in the world”, continues Nele. “But the commercial manufacturing is generally done aboard. That’s such a shame. We want to demonstrate that there are other options.”
Flemish biotechnology on the world map
For Nele and Marjan this is not just a dream: this is the route they are planning for B-COS, a future spin-off from Marjan’s research group. This company is working, among other things, on an alternative for antibiotics in the cattle feed industry. Marjan: “In this way we will also reduce the antimicrobial substances in the human body and we can limit the resistance to antibiotics.”
As a science advisor, Marjan regularly passes on her knowledge about specific technologies to Manus Bio. Nele: “This partnership is not only inspiring, it is also really practical. We are keen to start a number of research projects with them soon. Fundamental academic research is essential. But when businesses work in tandem with researchers, this is translated to the commercial world, and in doing so we create solutions for the problems in society.”
One thing is sure: biotechnology in Flanders will soon appear not only on the academic, but also on the industrial world map. That is certainly Marjan and Nele’s ambition.
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