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Biopolymers from fungi could transform digestive health

Article-Biopolymers from fungi could transform digestive health

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BiOkuris, a biotech startup, is applying proprietary technology to develop effective solutions for various gastrointestinal diseases beyond just irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

More than 25% of the global population suffer from functional gastrointestinal or motility disorders, with about half of these being IBS patients.

“Current treatments, such as antispasmodics [a group of medicines that suppress muscle spasms] and laxatives offer only limited relief and come with potential side effects,” noted Dr Benoit Palms, chief business officer of BiOkuris.

“This dissatisfaction can significantly impact quality of life. Additionally, patients with conditions such as coeliac disease and colitis can also experience IBS-like symptoms.”

Fungal chitin-glucan’s role in digestive health

One promising solution to addressing these symptoms is chitin-glucan. Chitin-glucan and its derivative, chitosan, are patented biopolymers from fungi.

BiOkuris, which was spun out from parent company Kitozyme, recognised its potential benefits in healthcare.

“While Kitozyme handles extraction and production, our challenge was to determine how fungal chitin-glucan could benefit digestive health, and how we could translate these features into patient benefits,” said Palms.

“This journey involved extensive research to understand the biopolymer's role in the gut, ensuring its efficacy and safety for patients.”

Palms and his team thoroughly investigated chitin-glucan to better understand its gut interactions. Many of the key findings have been published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.

Through its research, BiOkuris was able to demonstrate fungal chitin-glucan’s benefits in terms of reducing pain and bloating, as well as improving stool consistency and decreasing inflammatory lesions.

“This understanding allowed us to move to the next step, ie. identifying the ingredients that could combine with our fungal chitin-glucan,” said Palms.

“For every new product, we went through a screening step, ideally with a partner, in order to identify the ingredient or probiotic that would give that extra level of efficacy. The final step involved extensive clinical trials to confirm consumer benefits.”

A pipeline of innovative solutions

These efforts have resulted in a pipeline of innovative solutions.

“The novelty lies in the versatility of fungal chitin-glucan,” explained Palms. “The biopolymer acts on multiple fronts within the gut: it restores gut homeostasis by modulating microbiota, it strengthens the intestinal barrier, and [it] reduces inflammation.

“It also reduces adhesion of some pathogens and chelates bile acids, as well as bacterial and fungal toxins.”

The company’s BK001 product, for example, which is currently on the market in some EU countries, combines simethicone, an antiflatulent medicine, with chitin-glucan to reduce bloating and improve stool consistency.

“Initial clinical trials (published in the WJGPT) have been positive, with over 77 % of patients reporting marked symptom relief within two weeks,” said Palms.  

BK002, which is at the clinical stage, combines chitin-glucan with a probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus strain, as well as vitamin D3.

“This product would relieve the global symptoms of IBS and thereby improve patients’ quality of life. BK002 would specifically alleviate pain and bring back bowel regularity across all types of IBS patients,” said Palms.

Another clinical-stage product, BK003, combines chitin-glucan with vitamin D3, B vitamins, and minerals to meet micronutrient deficiencies in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients suffering from IBS-like symptoms.

Finally, BK004, which is ready to enter clinical trials, combines fungal chitin-glucan and chitosan for patients suffering from recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis. “We have very promising pre-clinical data showing superiority vs fluconazole,” said Palms.

Seeking partners for further rollouts

BK001 is currently being rolled out in partnership with Mayoly-Spindler in France, Apriwell in Germany, and Essensia in central and eastern European countries.

“We are seeking partners for a further rollout across the EU and beyond,” said Palms. “For BK002 and BK003, although still at the clinical stage, there is significant interest. Overall, we are on track, and pleased with our progress.”

To generate interest, visibility is, of course, crucial. For Palms and his team, entering the Vitafoods Europe 2024 Startup Innovation Challenge was an effective means of achieving this. BiOkuris was a finalist in the Most Innovative Nutraceutical Ingredient category, which helped to affirm the company’s belief in chitin-glucan’s potential.

“Furthermore, winning the Jury’s Award for the Most Sustainable Ingredient was a pleasant surprise, and highlighted our commitment to sustainability and our circular economy approach,” said Palms. “We gladly dedicate this award to our parent company, Kitozyme. This has generated a lot of visibility, especially as this process was an integral part of Vitafoods.”