Forests and Human Health December-20-2013

Forest biomasses as a source of novel bioactive compounds – A side event at the European Forest Week in Rovaniemi, Finland

Reported by Lu-Min Vaario
The Finnish Forest Research Institute

The European Forest Week, 9-13 December in Rovaniemi, focused on the contribution of forests and forest products to the green economy. One of the major messages of this conference was ‘Innovative wood products are the future’. A side event, Forest biomasses as a source of novel bioactive compounds, was organized by the Finnish Forest Research Institute and the IUFRO Task Force, Forests and Human Health. Around 30 participants joined this event. Prof. Hannu Raitio, director general of Metla, currently on leave of absence and the coordinator of IUFRO Task Force, Forests and Human Health, who recently began leading the merger project of the Finnish Forest Research Institute METLA, MTT Agrifood Research Finland, the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute RKTL and part of the Information Center of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, TIKE, addressed opening words after Dr. Tytti Sarjala opened this event. Prof. Raitio pointed out that forest biomass as a source of novel bioactive compounds was the potentially most promising field of research at this moment in the whole of forestry science and related disciplines because this was the key to the future bio-economy. Raitio highlighted the fact that the driver of the new bio-economy was the understanding that the time of uncontrolled use of non-renewable natural resources was coming to an end. He emphasized that we must find ways to do everything differently in a sustainable way. The chemical potential of wood biomass and forest plants will open up whole new sectors of industry that will flourish 50 years from now. Furthermore, Prof. Raitio also emphasized our challenges were how we could best boost this field of research to society as a whole because long term and lager scale research is needed.

Photo by Lu-Min Vaario.

Dr. Frank Surup, from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Germany, introduced the research actives of their group on focusing on fungi as one of the highly promising sources for unique bioactive secondary metabolites. Their approach is to find new bioactive compounds based on a rigid pre-selection of organisms for screening, employing chemical ecology, chemotaxonomy and molecular phylogeny. From the endophytic fungi they have isolated four novel antioxidant terphenyls, cytotoxic hypoxyvermelhotins, and antifungal sporothriolid from different species from Hypoxylon genus, the ascomycetes. So far, they have found 50 bioactive compounds from endophytic fungi from Hypoxylon genus. Two compounds were patented. Dr. Surup also emphasized that there was still a long way to go in developing a drug from screened compounds because of long processing times and research funding limitations.

However, they believe that endophytic fungi are a promising source of new bioactive natural products. Prof. Eeva Moilanen, from the immunopharmacology research group, the University of Tampere highlighted the fact that more than 60% of current drugs are of a natural origin and there is a need to develop new drugs from natural sources. Prof. Moilanen’s group is focusing on utilizing Nordic conifers, i.e. bark and knot wood. The have investigated two groups of compounds, lignans and stilbenes, for their immunomodulatory properties in vitro and in vivo models of inflammation. However, Prof. Moilanen pointed out that the bioactive and health-promoting compounds in the EU/Finland were still poorly known. Recently, the development of new drugs has been decreasing because the cost of developing new drugs is increasing. We need long-term funding to support research. On the other hands, cooperation with companies in related fields is absolutely necessary. Prof. Kristiina Wähälä from the Department of Chemistry of the University of Helsinki told us another story about polyphenols from forests in drug design. Plant-derived polyphenols have a wide range of pharmacological properties. Prof. Wähälä’s group has been working on detecting bioactive compounds from forest-derived products, testing the effects and challenges for modeling their functions. Their research work showed the great potential of the forest as a source for drug design. Lastly, Kari Lehmussaari, from the Science and Technology Forum Company discussed the major challenges in developing bioactive compounds originating in the forest into medicinal products. This almost two hour long side event raised the question: we have seen the potential of forest biomass as a source of novel bioactive compounds, but how do we meet the challenge of promoting our research into new applications. 

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