It is commonly accepted within the scientific community that eating fish is good for your health and can lower the risk of certain diseases. The marine nutraceutical industry is taking this one step further with the production of bioactive ingredients and food supplements derived from the plants and animals that live in the sea. The broadest definition of a nutraceutical is any dietary supplement that offers a medical or health benefit, above and beyond providing basic nutrition, including the prevention or treatment of disease. The nutraceutical industry is rapidly evolving worldwide, with 17% growth over the last 2 years and $128 billion in global sales revenue in 2000. It is hardly surprising that Atlantic Canada (namely Nova Scotia, Labrador, and Newfoundland), the region that has heavily depended on the marine environment for its livelihood for centuries, is fast becoming a world leader in marine biotechnology.
The marine environment has been a source of staple food for centuries and more recently has been a source of drug leads. It is only in recent years, however, that the marine environment has been tapped as a source of nutraceuticals and functional foods. "What's interesting about our work is that so much is based on discovery," says Colin Barrow, executive director of research and development at Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd. (ONC). "Most natural products are terrestrial-based. We're tapping the ocean's vast resources to find new, all-natural approaches to improving health." ONC is the largest privately owned marine natural product research facility in Canada and is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Science is at the core of the organization, with roughly one-third of ONC's total staff in research and development roles.
Marine nutraceutical research is a multidisciplinary venture. The 35 scientists at ONC, for example, have extensive experience in a variety of disciplines--organic chemistry, natural product chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, cell biology, delivery systems/microencapsulation technologies, and nutrition. "As a biochemist, I have an opportunity to apply drug-discovery principles to a different industry. It has not been traditional for the nutraceutical industry to use bioassay screening in a discovery process," says Steven Ewart, group leader for biochemistry and assay development. In addition to being able to apply an array of different techniques to marine research, part of the appeal of working at a small, marine-research-based company such as ONC is the breadth of experience gained. "As a scientist, you get exposed to far more things than you would in a larger company due to the collaborative nature of a relatively small, highly interdisciplinary research group," says Barrow. Research scientist Dorothy Dennis agrees. "After my B.Sc., I worked in an environmental testing laboratory, which, although interesting, quickly became routine. As a technician, I began to feel more like a machine performing the same tests each day," says Dennis. "At ONC, my work is more research oriented as part of the Natural Products Chemistry group. Because ONC is research focused, I play a role in research planning and experimental design and continuously learn new research techniques. I also learn a lot from my colleagues." Scientists working in marine nutraceutical research also have the opportunity to work closely with colleagues in manufacturing and quality assurance. They often have the occasion to learn about production processes, scale-up, quality assurance, and even the sales side of the business, according to Barrow. The Analytical Chemistry group, led by Jonathan Curtis, consists of five scientists who develop methods for manufacturing, quality control, and discovery. "We also play a major role in the initial discovery of new nutraceuticals and functional food leads by providing structure determination in close collaboration with groups such as Natural Products Chemistry. We regularly interact with outside research groups in government and university laboratories when additional techniques and expertise are required. The multidisciplinary nature of the projects and the wide variety of molecules and techniques mean that life is never boring here," says Curtis.
The marine nutraceutical industry in Canada is still in the early growth stage. Small companies find it very costly to develop and commercialize a product, and generally have to form strategic alliances at several stages of product development in order to get their first commercial product on the market. ONC has developed collaborations with the Institute for Marine Biosciences at the National Research Council of Canada. "Halifax has one of the highest concentrations of marine scientists in the world," says Barrow. "A relatively small company like ONC cannot function alone in a competitive field and must work collaboratively with local research groups both in the early discovery process and in clinical trials of products close to market."
Scientists have the opportunity to share expertise with counterparts in other companies, universities, and government. This type of interaction helps create a niche specialty in marine science within the province. "ONC scientists are involved in both establishing and maintaining these interactions. In fact, a number of ONC scientists came from government research laboratories and maintain their connections with those labs," he says.
Barrow believes that scientists working in university or government research laboratories, as well as those in industry, should consider marine-based nutraceuticals as an alternative to more traditional science-based industries such as pharmaceuticals. "The rapidly evolving nature of the nutraceutical industry makes this a particularly dynamic environment to work in, and scientists also get an opportunity to contribute to the scientific development of a relatively new industry," he says.