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Could North Carolina’s Next Wave of Innovation Come From the Sea?

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Diabetics may someday be able to ditch daily needle sticks and opt instead for a less frequent injection of tiny insulin-bearing particles to manage their blood sugar. Key to this experimental drug delivery method is the source material: shrimp shells and seaweed.

This nanoparticle technology, developed in labs at the joint biomedical engineering program at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses material from shrimp shells and seaweed to form a tiny mesh network that holds the nanoparticles until they’re needed. Zhen Gu, the biomedical engineering professor leading the research, says the materials work well because they are biocompatible with the human body. Tests of the drug delivery technology in animals have yielded promising results, so far.

The next wave of North Carolina innovation could come from its 301 miles of coastline. Long a source of food, the ocean is now being tapped by researchers and companies for applications ranging from pharmaceuticals to fuel. Development of this “blue economy” in the state and around the world was the focus last week at the BioMarine International Business Convention. Now in its sixth year, this year’s conference in Wilmington, NC, was the first time the gathering was held in the United States.

The BioMarine conference brings together various players in a marine bio industry that conference organizers say generates $172 billion in global revenue annually. The composition of that market is changing. Fuels have fallen out of favor as a marine bio target, due largely to cost. Entrepreneur Bruce Dannenberg hammered on that point to me last year when I wrote about his cleantech startup, Phytonix. The Asheville, NC, company engineered cyanobacteria, a kind of photosynthetic bacteria found on land and in oceans, to produce butanol. Dannenberg said Phytonix would pursue chemical applications rather than fuel uses because chemicals are a higher value market.

Pharmaceuticals and food have emerged as drivers for marine bio-research. Drug companies are searching for new compounds that can be developed into drugs to replenish their depleted pipelines. Meanwhile, food companies are turning to the oceans for new aquaculture solutions to help feed a growing global population. North Carolina can claim a beachhead in the blue economy because … Next Page »

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