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Tuesday, 27 March 2012 13:13

API Labs surges on in midst of pharmaceutical shortage

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By Jamie Woodford
Southern Alberta
While a nationwide drug shortage has hospitals across the country rationing supplies and cancelling elective surgeries, a southern Alberta company is taking steps to boost Canada’s medicine-making industry.

Although API Labs had the idea to grow the baine poppies for medical use before the drug shortage was revealed, the company says establishing an industry for this  crop could allow Canada to “become self-sufficient in cultivating and processing the baine into existing and newly-developed medicines.”

According to API’s website,”in 2008 Canada’s retail sales of medicines and seeds derived from poppies were in excess of $550 million. From 1989 to 2009, the demand for morphine-based medications increased seven-fold, while the demand for the baine-based medications increased 26-fold.”

Poppy production around the world has increased by 36 per cent, while the baine poppy production has increased by 209 per cent, which means the opportunities for the baine poppy crops could be enormous.

Igor Kovalchuk, a biotechnologist at the University of Lethbridge, has been leading a study on the poppy’s physiological aspects as well as its alkaloid content found in the straw and processing methods to extract alkaloids for medical use.

Alkaloids are a group of naturally-occurring chemical compounds usually found in plants like the poppy. Local anesthetics, antibiotics and other common drugs have been derived from these plant-based alkaloids.

“Basically we want to make sure that the crop adapts well to this environment,” he said. “We want to see how we can improve that and we want to see how we can increase the alkaloid content because the main cash for the company is obviously alkaloids, although of course, (poppy) seeds can be sold.”

While Kovalchuk’s research has been conducted mainly in a greenhouse, he said southern Alberta’s landscape could provide the perfect conditions for the the baine poppy to thrive.

“We have hot summers, we have relatively cool nights, (and) we have quite a bit of wind so all of this seems to be quite good for growing this crop, and the production of alkaloids because alkaloids contents increases when there’s shifts in temperatures,” he said.

He said he hasn’t seen the plant grown anywhere else so he can’t compare how well the poppy would grow here as opposed to other places, but his impression of the plant so far is positive.

“Absolutely. The income that farmers get is probably at least five (times) or higher than what they get for canola for example. It’s a real cash cow for farmers,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the plan. You have the income from straw and income from seeds.”

He added the study will also include looking at other properties of the flower such as its oil content.

“It seems to be a healthy oil as well.”

API anticipates a return of between $1,500 to $3,000 per acre, and estimates a potential for 25,000 acres to be in production by 2015.

Unlike other varieties of poppies such as the morphine poppy, the baine does not have narcotic properties and cannot be used to produce heroin. To do so would require a complex processing facility in order to convert the flower into any controlled narcotics substance.

API is currently waiting on approval from Health Canada’s Office of Controlled Substances before it can move forward with field trials within the County of Lethbridge.

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