Imagine the treatment for some cancers growing in our forests. Or powerful drugs for herpes, HIV or liver disease.
How about a natural source of biodegradable plastic, skin
conditioner or mosquito repellent? Or maybe a nontoxic pesticide or
fungicide for gardens?
Behold the birch tree, the noble Northland native that someday might serve as a medicine chest for the world.
A group of Duluth scientists is extracting a natural chemical from
birch bark that appears to hold incredible potential for fighting
diseases. It has been slow to develop, but the first commercial success
may be near, part of a global shift to more natural-based compounds and
Later this month, a factory in Two Harbors, Minn., will begin making
bulk, processed birch bark pellets that laboratories can refine into
betulin, the active compound in birch that holds so much promise.
More importantly, because anyone can grind up birch bark, NaturNorth
Technologies also owns the patented process that extracts betulin from
the birch pellets.
Snow-white betulin from Northland birch could be a key component to
a pharmaceutical product within months, although researchers are
legally prevented from saying exactly what medicine or company.
But it gets better. Instead of chopping trees down to make medicines
and cosmetics, NaturNorth uses the bark from trees already cut down to
make paper. Tons of paper mill waste that is being burned in boilers
will instead be headed for Two Harbors to become part of a natural
"The cellulose used to make the paper is only 10 percent of the
wood. Now it is time to start using the other 90 percent," said Pavel
Krasutsky, head of the Natural Resources Research Institute’s chemical
extractives laboratory at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "Who
knows, it may be much more valuable than the paper. And we’ve been
calling it waste."
Birch bark is abundant, cheap, holds about 1,000 compounds and its
betulin "is nontoxic, it’s versatile, it’s very active and we can get
the basic material for almost free," said Robert Carlson, University of
Minnesota Duluth chemistry professor and a pioneer researcher of
betulin. "The cost of the base material already is offset by the
papermaking process. So everything else we get out of it is a winner."
Carlson was among the first in the U.S. to document the properties
of betulin from birch, inspired by his walks in the woods where he saw
birch bark outlasting everything else on the forest floor.
It appeared betulin’s first success would be a herpes virus
medicine. Lab and animal research showed betulin was incredibly
effective at treating herpes.
"One of the reasons we kept looking at birch is that the very first
thing we tried it on, herpes, it worked. That doesn’t happen very
often" in the scientific world, Carlson said.
But because it wasn’t synthetic, pharmaceutical companies balked.
While you can patent processes, you can’t patent nature. So possibly
the best medicine for herpes remains unavailable a decade after it was
"It worked too well. A company could have taken our work, done all
the trials and spent all the money and then get undercut by someone
else who could use a slightly different process," Carlson said. "The
pharmaceutical companies won’t touch it because they can’t make any
money off of it."
But betulin from birch showed too much promise to give up on, and
Carlson, Krasutsky and NRRI turned their attention to other products.
Since then, its uses have included plastic, food supplements and skin
It’s been known for centuries that birch has healing powers,
although scientists only recently discovered why. American Indians
still hold birch in almost sacred status for its practical, medicinal
and spiritual properties. Ancient Russians knew that wounds healed
faster when birch bark was applied.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 70 percent of the
Earth’s 6.2 billion people still rely on plant-based traditional
medicine to relieve pain, heal wounds and prevent or cure diseases.
Of course, birch is only one source. The modern U.S. movement back
to natural sources for chemicals got a jump-start in the 1980s when it
was confirmed that taxol, an element found in California yew trees, was
an effective cancer drug. Taxol has become among the most successful
chemotherapy treatments for breast, ovarian and lung cancers.
In March, Clemson University food chemist Feng Chen reported that
compounds in African mahogany bark slow the growth of colon cancer
cells. His research was part of a National Institutes of Health effort
to explore pharmaceuticals from "traditional" medicinal plants and
trees to treat cancer — the kind of medicine often shunned in past
years as voodoo.
Inside birch bark, betulin is so complex a compound that it may be
impossible to replicate synthetically. That makes efforts to find all
of betulin’s potential uses more attractive financially. The investment
is more likely to pay off if the product can’t be easily copied.
And products with betulin as their base are nontoxic, while synthetic compounds often have toxic side effects.
"Ninety-nine percent of the compounds rejected for drugs is because
they are so toxic," Carlson said. "That’s a problem we don’t have."
The National Institutes of Health are looking at betulin’s properties to battle melanoma, Krasutsky said.
The Duluth efforts aren’t the only ones tapping into birch potential, however. Europeans already are on the move.
One company in Russia is going bananas over birch. The firm already
makes an "antimycotic birch bark insole" for shoes, "health-improving"
bed pillows of milled birch bark, betulin for the food and
pharmacological industries, mosquito repellent made of birch bark tar,
and floor and wall coverings made of pressed milled birch bark.
In Russia, you can buy betulin-packed tablets as a defense against
liver damage. Alcoholics are encouraged to drop a couple of birch
tablets before their vodka binges, with betulin purportedly blocking
the damage alcohol can cause.
"There’s big market for that in Russia," Krasutsky joked. "But Americans also drink."
By John Myers