More Cash for Food Research

March 29, 2011

A two-year-long clinical study on the health benefits of flax seeds is complete and, depending on the results, it could yield a rich supply of potential products for commercialization.

The $2-million study, headed by Dr. Grant Pierce at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre, was designed to monitor the effects of therapeutic doses of ground flax seed on patients with peripheral arterial disease, a potentially fatal disease.

"We're very excited," Pierce said. "The last patient finished the trial two weeks ago and now we'll take about six months analyzing the results."

Pierce and his team at the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre have been working on the heart-healthy elements of flax seed for a number of years.

Whether the resulting findings develop into commercial products available on the shelf or behind the pharmacy counter will partly be the responsibility of a three-year-old umbrella network called Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network (MAHRN).

On Tuesday, provincial and federal funders gave MAHRN an additional $406,000 vote of confidence to further develop its role as a one-stop-shop for promotion and commercialization of functional-foods research in the province.

In addition to the research at CCARM, it also works with researchers at the U of M's Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals and the Food Development Centre at Portage la Prairie.

MAHRN has only been around for three years but in that short time it has created seven equity companies emanating out of research from the three Manitoba facilities and has established partnerships as far away as Chile and Australia.

"We have been lucky to be opportunistic," said Lee Anne Murphy, MAHRN's executive director.

She said at first it was mostly promoting the work being done in Manitoba, raising its profile and garnering interest.

"Now we have moved to the next phase -- partnerships with for-profit groups," Murphy said.

While Pierce's flax seed study has been something of a standard-bearer for the functional-foods research cluster in Manitoba, a joint venture with a Chilean grain company is perhaps the project that is furthest along the commercialization path.

The Chilean company is looking to develop more nutritious bread and snack foods for the Chilean market. It is tapping the research and development expertise that already exists in Manitoba to develop those kinds of products.

MAHRN has shares in the company and has negotiated royalty payments when product starts getting sold, as well as a fee-for-service for consulting work.

Discussions are underway with an Australian food company that is interested in adding highly soluble carrot fibre powder developed in Manitoba to its fruit juices.

In addition to the testing and even the development of packaging at the Food Development Centre in Portage, researchers at the U of M are formalizing the soluble powder so it could be mixed with fruit juice.

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