For a long time it was mainly used as a model system for basic research – the single-celled microorganism Sulfolobus acidocaldarius† It is one of the microorganisms that thrive in extremely hot or acidic conditions. dr. Julian Quehenberger, CTO at the TU Vienna spin-off NovoArc, came up with the idea to make a new kind of pills that offer an alternative to injections. However, the technology can also be used in the production of green hydrogen.
In 2021, Quehenberger and Spadiut, along with Dr. David Wurm founded the biotech company NovoArc and managed to commercialize the idea with spin-off grant funding from the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG). CEO David Wurm tells more about it.
What’s wrong with the current tablets?
“The reason many drugs have to be injected is their instability in the stomach and poor absorption in the body after oral administration. Currently, chemical coatings are used to protect the active ingredient in the stomach. However, these often take up a large part of the entire tablet. The substances used for the coatings are also subject to criticism.
In addition, active substances with low bioavailability are often administered to patients in overdoses, so that a sufficient amount is absorbed by the body. This leads to serious side effects, such as with antibiotics, which can destroy the intestinal flora. It also places a heavy burden on the aquatic ecosystem. For example, the hormones secreted by the contraceptive pill cause infertility in fish.”
What solution does this micro-organism offer?
“We use a biological sheath of lipids – so-called liposomes – to protect various active substances against degradation in the stomach and to increase absorption in the gut. The lipids come from the cell membrane of these so-called extremophilic micro-organisms. They act as a biological barrier in the acidic environment of the stomach.
The use of these lipids was successfully tested several years ago in numerous in vivo studies for the administration of insulin, antibiotics, cancer therapeutics and other substances. The reason why there are no products with this technology on the market yet is the availability of the necessary lipids. Until now, these could not be produced in sufficient quality and quantity. Through years of research, we have succeeded in developing a production process that solves this problem, so that the technology can finally be used in the pharmaceutical sector.
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There are currently several approaches to replacing injections with tablets, but they always come with some drawbacks. Yet the subject is extremely important. After all, more than 20 percent of the entire population is afraid of injections and many people even faint when given injections.”
What was the biggest challenge?
“The biggest challenge was the development of a production process for the required lipids. We produce these substances through a biotechnological process that uses archaea. These archaea grow very slowly in nature and require very complex conditions. It was not easy to grow them in a reproducible and scalable way in a defined and controlled laboratory atmosphere. This is where our know-how from bioprocess development and our many years of experience in pharmaceutical production processes came in handy.”
To what extent is the product ready for the market?
“The pharmaceutical market is very slow. However, we are pleased that we already have several partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and have already sold our product to them. Because we are an innovation-driven company, we want to continuously develop our product. We are currently working on special lipid mixtures that we adapt to specific active ingredients. Furthermore, in addition to the oral administration of active substances, we also want to develop products for the administration of medicines via the skin and the nose.”
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“An additional major advantage of our technology is the stabilizing effect of our lipids on the active ingredients during storage. Normally, many active ingredients must be stored at a temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius. This is accompanied by high costs, a great logistical effort and high energy consumption. Our lipids should make it possible to store many active ingredients at room temperature. This in turn reduces the CO2footprint significant! It also makes it possible to provide medical care to people in remote areas.”
Are you also planning to use micro-organisms for the production of good hydrogen?
“We indeed want to use the stable lipids of Sulfolobus to develop new mini-power plants for the production of green hydrogen (H2† huh2 is a carbon-free, alternative energy carrier and is considered the sustainable fuel of the future. This is due in no small part to the high gravimetric energy density. (This describes how much energy is stored per weight (mass) of a raw material; ed.).
Most of the H2 however, used today is produced from non-renewable resources, such as natural gas or coal. Only a small part, about 4 percent, is produced from water by electrolysis. However, electrolysis is only sustainable if the required electricity comes from renewable energy sources such as wind or solar energy – and that only applies to 5 percent. There is therefore a great demand for new and sustainable methods for the production of green H2†
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“A possible green process for generating energy or hydrogen is semi-artificial photosynthesis. In this process, the enzymes of plants or microorganisms responsible for photosynthesis are used in photoelectrochemical cells. These enzymes are embedded in membranes in their natural environment. If you want to use them efficiently for a long time, you have to embed them in such an environment to stabilize them.
Recently, these enzymes have been successfully incorporated into conventional liposomes. However, this served a purely basic scientific purpose. Conventional lipids are not stable enough to withstand the high temperatures and the release of oxygen – the conditions of photosynthesis.
We want green H . in a sustainable way2 produce from light and water in stable mini power stations. To this end, we convert the photoactive building blocks into CO2-biotechnologically extract negative processes and package them into stable lipids from NovoArcs.”