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Fragrances, food flavors are new biotech niche

The outdoor scent in your laundry detergent. Air fresheners that bring an English garden into your home. Sweet-tasting children’s medicine. These elusive fragrances and flavors found in everyday household items are captured not from nature, but in the labs of biotech companies that develop and isolate a singular taste or smell.

San Diego is home to two biotech companies that focus on this lucrative niche market:Senomyx, which develops flavor enhancers and bitter blockers, while Allylix has created scents that can repel insects and act as anti-fungal agents, aside from fragrances.

Both companies have used drug discovery methods to develop food grade flavors and unique fragrances, in a fraction of the time and cost that it would take to develop drugs and get FDA approval.

In 2010, sales of sucrose (or sugar) was estimated at $100 billion worldwide; sales of monosodium glutamate -- or MSG, a flavor enhancer -- was $5 billion; cooling flavors like mint, used in every thing from lozenges to tooth paste, was estimated to be a $1.2 billion market; bitter blockers that reduce the bitter taste of medicines was around $15 billion, and sucralose, the sweetener used in brands like Splenda, had sales of $330 million.

Given the huge demand for such flavors and the fragrances used in household products, manufacturers across the world are looking for products that can replace or reduce the quantity of flavoring and fragrance agents, lower costs, be environmentally friendly and safe to consume.

It’s this niche that the two firms serve, but they approach it in very different, innovative ways.

While the traditional approach focuses on finding a known ingredient -- such as chili peppers in South America -- and developing flavors, Senomyx (Nasdaq: SNMX), focuses on taste receptors to find new flavor ingredients.

Our tongues have taste buds and each taste bud is a bundle of cells. Each cell is responsible for a particular taste. On the tip of the cells are proteins which are taste receptors. They send signals to our brain telling us we’re eating something sweet or salty.

The five taste categories are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, or savory. Senomyx is at the forefront having identified these taste receptors so it can activate flavors and either reduce or amplify them.

“We use robotic screening similar to what’s used in drug discovery to identify new ingredients that interact with the receptors that amplify sweetness, block bitterness or create flavors. We use similar technology, but for a very different outcome,” said Gwen Rosenburg, vice president of communications at Senomyx.

Senomyx has a sucralose enhancer that can be used by manufacturers to reduce the use of sucralose by 75 percent while providing the sweetness customers want. Its sucrose enhancer can reduce the quantity of sucrose by 50 percent.

This gives customers the double advantage of lower calories and lower costs, but the same taste.

Rosenburg explained that Senomyx’s products don’t have a taste of their own, but they amplify the taste of sugar or MSG, thereby making it possible to reduce the quantity used.

This sounds a lot like tofu, which adapts to the taste of the dish it’s prepared for, but has no strong taste on its own. Rosenburg laughed, but agreed with the comparison.

“So Senomyx saves costs for manufacturers and provides a health benefit as a bonus,” she said.

Some of the company’s products in the market right now include savory flavors that replace or reduce the use of MSG in items sold in the Americas, Africa and the Pacific Rim. It licenses the technology to its customers who manufacture and market the products.

Firmenich, a Swiss flavor and fragrance company, has just begun manufacturing the sucralose flavor enhancer that will hit the market soon.

Also in the pipeline is a sucrose enhancer to reduce the use of sugar. Rosenburg expects this will become the company’s flagship product going forward, at least for a while.

Senomyx has a library of more than 800,000 potential new ingredients that it has put together after identifying the taste receptors and screening.

Future plans including researching an enhancer for fructose, such as the type used in high fructose corn syrup, which can reduce the quantity of the syrup used. Also being researched is a salt flavor enhancer that can reduce the use of salt.

Allylix, on the other hand, focuses on terpenes, which occur naturally in plants, for flavors, fragrances and anti-fungal products.

Fruits and vegetables have phytochemicals, of which terpenes are a big part. Terpenes are a large class of compounds which act as phytochemicals.

“There are some in the market but they are very complex, cyclic structures that occur in very small quantities, so they were hard to produce until we found a way to produce them efficiently, using yeast,” explained Carolyn Fritz, president and CEO of Allylix.

The company has a suite of seven flavors it will market but not manufacture, and it also collaborates with customers to develop fragrances and flavors.

Valencene and nootkatone are the two major products, used in beverages, in perfumes and even in insect and mosquito repellants.

Valencene is an aroma ingredient drawn from the skin of Valencia oranges, while nootkatone is a grapefruit flavor. Both are used in citrus flavored sodas and fruit juices, but have a limited market due to the high cost of extracting them.

“If you look at the spot market, valencene sells for $750 per pound while nootkatone sells for $2400 a pound. You don’t need a lot, small amounts can impart a lot of flavor, but lowering the costs will expand their use,” Fritz said.

Allylix wants to reduce the cost and expand the market for these products with its proprietary technology. It uses a sugar source, a medium to make the yeast grow and the yeast itself, producing them in a fermenter in a sustainable manner, without using the fruit peel.

Nootkatone, aside from being a flavor and fragrance enhancer, is also an effective tick repellant, safe to use and environmentally friendly, unlike other products on the market.

Ticks cause 30,000 cases of Lyme disease each year, but people tend to shy away from using repellants because of the strong odor and greasy feel. So the Center for Disease Control, which has been searching for a natural insect repellant, supports the research and development of nootkatone.

Out of the seven products in Allylix’s collection, these two are now on the market, and the other five will be launched soon.

Fritz said that once production costs are reduced, they can be used in household products like detergents, as well as beverages and food items.

Terpenes can also be used as biofuels, although producing them is an energy intensive process, so the economics of doing so are challenging.

Future potential is unlimited according to Fritz, who compared terpenes to industrial enzymes which emerged in the 1970s and now enjoy a multi-billion dollar market.

“There’s a global movement towards greener, cleaner chemicals and we are one part of that trend,” Fritz said.

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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