Up to now, a key ingredient in Tamiflu has come from a single source – the star anise tree of China. Now, University of Maine researchers have discovered an abundant supply right in their own backyards – pine needles.
Tamiflu is considered one of the most effective anti-viral drugs for various kinds of flu in humans and is made from shikimic acid. The primary source for it is the star anise tree which grows in southwestern China. However, the tree is only harvested three times a year, and during periods of flu epidemics, it is difficult to meet the demand. The situation is further complicated by droughts and other climatic conditions which can threaten the harvest.
There have been various efforts to make a synthetic form of shakimic acid, but the primary source continues to be the anise tree.
Now a team of researchers at the University of Maine have found a new, abundant, and readily available source – pine needles.
Maine is known as the Pine Tree State for good reason. Nearly 90 percent of the state is forested, and most that is pine.
For the past four years, chemistry Prof. Ray Fort, Jr., and two others have been collecting the needles of various conifers to see if they could separate out the shikimic acid.
“We’ve been testing a variety of procedures for separating out the good stuff,” Fort told WABI-TV. He described the process as similar to making a cup of tea.
Prof. Barbara J. Cole, another of the researchers, said she believes the process can be commercially competitive, given the abundance and proximity of pine needles. It would also be an environmentally-friendly process since, the needles could be harvested from trees already logged.
“It would be taking trees that are already cut, already pulp species, and just getting more and more value from them,” she said.