Astaxanthin Production Business Growth

April 2014

Business growth at Supreme Biotechnologies growing algae for astaxanthin production

Astaxanthin is a powerful carotenoid antioxidant that is in demand as a nutritional supplement.  It is produced by the microalgae Haematoccous pluvialis when stressed by sun and desiccation.  Astaxanthin can be extracted from the dried algae using supercritical CO2.  Supreme Biotechnololgies in Nelson grows a NZ strain of H. pluvialis in 2m long plastic bags, stresses the organism and collects it for extraction of astaxanthin by a local company.

Astaxanthin in capsule form has been selling well for the past two years.  Recently the company has changed to LED lighting, more than doubled production capacity and has obtained finance to increase overseas marketing.  Two new products – combinations of astaxanthin with other nutraceuticals – are now being marketed for improved joint and eye health.

The scientific literature on astaxanthin indicates that it is the most powerful antioxidant discovered so far and has unique properties in that it can cross the blood/brain barrier and also the retinal barrier.  Dr Bob Corish, a medical consultant with a special interest in preventive medicine, believes that astaxanthin’s ability to mop up free radicals makes it of great value in preventing and treating many illnesses.

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid, a class of compound that gives foods high colour e.g. beetroot, bell peppers, carrots, etc.  These pigments carry out a variety of important biological functions, are critical to photosynthesis, and protect plants and organisms from damage by light and oxygen. Many animals including humans consume carotenoids to provide them with antioxidants and a source of vitamin A.

The best known carotenoids are lycopene (the red in tomatoes), beta-carotene (the orange in carrots) and zeaxanthin, which is found in peppers, kiwifruit, grapes and oranges.  Astaxanthin is a very powerful antioxidant and is unique among the many known carotenoids in that it is the only one found that can cross the blood-brain and retinal barriers.  Thus it has great protective potential and is in increasing demand as a nutritional supplement.

Astaxanthin gives salmon its characteristic pink colour. Salmon obtain it from a diet that includes zooplankton and krill that in turn feed on microalgae that produce the pigment.

The common algae Haematoccous pluvialis is used commercially as a source of astaxanthin.  It occurs all over the world but the NZ strain is thought to be particularly potent because of the high levels of UV light here.  Supreme Biotechnologies’ has a unique system of growing the algae in aerated solutions held in large, long plastic tubes under tightly controlled conditions of temperature and light.  The algae are green in the growing phase but when stressed they produce astaxanthin as a protective mechanism and turn red.  The cells are allowed to settle in the bottom of the bags, are bled out, dried and sent to another company for extraction using supercritical CO2.

Since the last story the company has increased production capacity from 2000 bags to around 5000 bags.  This has been made possible in part by a change from fluorescent to LED lighting that gives greater control over the desired wavelengths and is also cheaper.

CEO Tony Dowd says that the company is now changing focus from production of the base material to marketing a range of consumer products internationally.   Two new products have been produced so far.

The first is designed to alleviate arthritis and joint problems.  It combines astaxanthin with fish oil (a source of omega-3 fatty acids) and the spice tumeric that contains the anti-inflammatory compound curcumin. All three have anti-inflammatory properties and in combination are said to be effective without the side effects of corticosteroids and other anti-arthritic drugs.

The second product currently being launched is aimed at improving eye health.  It contains astaxanthin in combination with lutein and Marlborough saffron.  (Lutein is a carotenoid that occurs in the retina, and taking it as a supplement helps prevent age-related macular degeneration.  Similarly, saffron has been shown to halt macular degeneration and begin the process of retinal cell repair.)

Tony Dowd says that other products are planned, but his current efforts are directed towards raising capital for further expansion and international marketing of products.  He says there is considerable unmet demand for astaxanthin because of growing interest in its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Dr Bob Corish, a medical doctor with training in several specialist areas and with a strong interest in preventive medicine, is a consultant to the company.  He believes astaxanthin’s strength is what makes it outstanding as a nutraceutical.

“It is more powerful than any other antioxidant we know of, and it works by a different mechanism.  It can mop up more of the free radicals that can cause disease if not brought under control.  There are multiple species of these toxic molecules and if they get out of hand they can cause damage that is the basis for many diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis,” says Dr Corish.

“Neutralising free radicals before any damage is done is what we call prevention, and that’s the strength of astaxanthin.  It can go to the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body whereas some other antioxidants don’t have that ability. It also appears to have some therapeutic activity.”

Dr Corish says that the New Zealand product it is extracted from a particularly robust strain of algae, which leads to a better quality product.

“Just as New Zealand’s fruits and vegetables, like grapes and olives, produce more of their own polyphenol antioxidants because it is a defence mechanism against the strong sun, so the H. pluvialis algae here are rich in astaxanthin,” he says.

“Our clean environment is part of the New Zealand brand and draws buyers from Malaysia and Japan and other countries even though they may have their own producers of astaxanthin.”

“I believe New Zealand astaxanthin has tremendous potential as an anti-inflammatory supplement.  It doesn’t replace a balanced diet, regular exercise and positive social interactions in terms of promoting good health but it certainly has a place in supporting the body’s immune system, helping to neutralise toxic molecules and prevent and treat many of the problems associated with inflammation and ageing.”