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Preserving bacteria through a healthy collaboration

Professor de Pablo, Ekdawi-Sever, Leyer and Beretta with
                        freeze-dried probiotics

Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Juan de Pablo (second from right) and graduate student Nancy Ekdawi-Sever (left) are working with Rhodia Staff Scientist Greg Leyer (right) and Process Engineer Fabrice Beretta (second from left) to create freeze-dried probiotics that have superior stability and a longer shelf life. (Photo by Bob Rashid) (large image)

While "friendly bacteria" might sound like a contradiction in terms, Madison-based Rhodia Inc., is making sure that people worldwide benefit from health-enhancing microorganisms. Called probiotics, they are health enhancing bacteria found predominantly in yogurt, fermented milks and dietary supplements, and are credited with numerous health benefits, including warding off intestinal-tract infections, modulating the immune system, helping the body produce B vitamins and aiding in dairy product digestion.

UW-Madison Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Juan de Pablo and his team are working with Rhodia to create freeze-dried probiotics that have superior stability, a longer shelf-life and the ability to survive in greater numbers at room temperature.

When Rhodia Staff Scientist Dr. Greg Leyer began exploring new methods in stabilizing freeze-dried bacteria, he became interested in learning more about a patent application held by de Pablo's group describing a new method of preserving biological systems. "Most probiotics are sold in a dry format, so shelf-life of freeze-dried bacteria is something that we want to improve," says Leyer. "There was technology being developed at UW-Madison that we felt could have great benefits to our industry."

The opportunity for a university-industry collaboration allowed de Pablo's team to expand their research to include bacterial probiotics. "We have a general class of chemicals and materials that can be used for cryopreservation, or freeze-drying, of biological systems," says de Pablo. "We have tested these products on enzymes and proteins, but not on bacteria. By working with Rhodia, we've been able to apply these methods to several classes of bacteria and optimize them to a point where they offer an economically attractive alternative to what is currently being done in industry."

Nancy Ekdawi-Sever, a chemical engineering student working with de Pablo, says her group developed a patent- pending formulation optimized to suit each type of probiotic. "We've also improved the freeze-drying protocol to figure out how much freeze-drying is necessary to yield the best stability," she says.

Most of Ekdawi-Sever's experiments are conducted on a relatively small scale. Rhodia Process Engineer Fabrice Beretta makes sure that the technology developed in the lab can be scaled for use in its manufacturing plants. "It's a very cost effective way of doing research for Rhodia," says Beretta.

The collaboration has sped the development of the process immensely. "We hope to commercialize this in 2001 — the sooner the better," says Leyer. "From what we've seen in small-scale studies, the new process provides a significant benefit."

In addition to benefiting industry, collaborations like this are important to education. "By collaborating with industry we make sure that the things we do are relevant in practice, which should always be an important goal for an engineer," says de Pablo.

Leyer says the experience has been very positive for Rhodia. "We don't do work with the University of Wisconsin- Madison because it's 10 miles from our business, we work with the university because it's a world-renowned institution with world-class researchers," he says.

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