The biotech firm specialises in scaling up the production of lactoferrin, a scarce protein found in dairy, via precision fermentation. Past studies show that the concentration of lactoferrin could vary from 2-5 mg/ml in the colostrum to 0.1-0.3 mg/ml in mature bovine milk.
Currently, it is used in small amounts in infant formulas to support babies’ immune system.
By increasing the production of lactoferrin, TurtleTree believes it could maximise lactoferrin’s usage into more areas.
One of which is enhancing sports performance, as lactoferrin could bind to iron and help increase oxygen supply to the muscles, Dr Vanessa Castagna, director of Clinical and Scientific Affairs, TurtleTree told NutraIngredients-Asia.
Today, most sports nutrition products are designed for improving metabolic activity or increasing muscle mass.
In contrast, lactoferrin functions “completely outside” of proteins usually used in sports nutrition.
By binding to iron, lactoferrin could help improve blood flow and oxygen supplies to muscles, Dr Castagna explained.
“These processes are really about increasing oxygen supplies to the body, to the muscles and when we looked at how this could support human health, the natural application is then in sports nutrition and sports applications.”
By using precision fermentation, the company believes it could scale up lactoferrin production for mass market use in sports nutrition products. Such products also appeal to vegan or vegetarian athletes.
“Because we're completely removed from the animal by using precision fermentation, not only could we step into sports nutrition by improving the supply of lactoferrin, we could also step into the niche category of vegan or vegetarian athletic performers that are missing all of the dairy and meat based proteins essential for optimal function,” she said.
Precision fermentation uses microorganisms that are often genetically engineered for producing food ingredients.
The microorganisms convert sugars and other simple chemical substances that they are fed with into more complex food ingredients, such as proteins and flavour compounds. A purification process is required to remove these microorganisms from the food ingredients produced.
TurtleTree revealed that the expected lactoferrin production levels would hit about 190k litre of fermentation capacity. Commercialisation is expected to take place within this year, starting from the US and Singapore.
Some of the product formats for sports nutrition include powder beverages and ready-to-drink beverages.
In Singapore, foods from precision fermentation are considered novel foods and have to be approved by the Singapore Food Agency before they are allowed for sale. In the US, companies can apply for GRAS (generally recognised as safe) status for food ingredients made from precision fermentation.
The US also serves as TurtleTree’s research base as part of its collaboration with University of California, Davis, while Singapore remains its headquarters.
Clinical trial for sports, gut, immunity
Aside from enhancing sports performance, the firm also sees lactoferrin as a multifunctional protein that could benefit both immune and gut health, and has designed clinical trials to assess its functions in these areas.
Dr Castagna explained that lactoferrin could help regulate the gut microbiome and strengthen the gut barrier, and these were especially important to athletes.
“There's a lot of evidence showing that athletes have disruption in their gut health when they perform athletic activities, and iron can help regulate that to reduce the impact of sports performance on gut health, which then has huge impacts on the overall health and immune function.
“But even just looking at iron alone, there's a huge percentage of athletes that are iron deficient.”
The four-week trial, to take place in the US, will assess the impact of lactoferrin on the sports performance of healthy male and female athletes.
It is expected to kick off in a few months, with results out early to mid-next year.
Its other clinical trial looks at how lactoferrin supplementation could impact cognitive function.
“This trial is more about how people feel after taking lactoferrin. It’s less based on the actual measurements of biological samples and more of asking whether they feel an increased level of energy, whether they feel improvement in their cognitive function, mood, and behaviour.”
Lactoferrin for women’s health, ageing, and plant-based products
TurtleTree’s goal is to commercialise lactoferrin made from precision-fermentation into five categories, namely women’s health, plant-based foods, cognitive health for the elderly, and multivitamins, on top of sports nutrition.
At the moment, much of the industry’s interest lies in lactoferrin's role in plant-based foods, said Dr Castagna.
“Right now, a lot of interest is in the plant-based category, because of the unique aspect of our ingredient being an animal protein, but it's also produced free of the animal, and so it provides this a cool opportunity for plant-based products.
“But we are certainly exploring and in all of these different categories and do have customers interests in these areas.”