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(photo credit: Karin Kloosterman)
For most of his professional life, Tel Aviv University professor Michael Ovadia focused on snakes and the medicinal properties of their venom. But seven years ago, after meditating on a biblical passage, Ovadia's career focus began to take a twist... a cinnamon twist to be exact.
Today the spiritual scientist from TAU's Department of Zoology is commercializing a unique cinnamon extract that is touted to quell viral infections from HIV to the Avian flu.
A research and license deal on his patent-pending cinnamon extract was signed last week between TAU's technology transfer company Ramot and Frutarom, a multinational nutraceutical company based in Israel. Frutarom is expected to use the extract in a whole host of applications from disinfecting the air as a spray against Avian flu in airports; to a daily supplement that protects people against the common flu.
Those researching in the field of natural medicine know that snake venom, especially the notorious poisonous kind, has unique anti-viral and analgesic properties that can help fight human illness and disease. For the past 40 years, Ovadia had been working with natural antidotes and found that certain kinds of venom can deactivate Parainfluenza (Sendai) virus - a virus similar to the human flu.
Work was going well. Papers were published, patents had been developed, and his reputation in the field was established. But Ovadia was still waiting for the breakthrough that every scientist dreams about.
That breakthrough would come to him one morning in the synagogue while listening to a reading from the Old Testament.
"There is a passage that explains how the High Priests - the Kohanim - would prepare a holy oil used on their bodies before they made a ritual animal sacrifice," recalls Ovadia. "I had a hunch that this oil, which was prepared with cinnamon and other spices, played a role in preventing the spread of infectious agents to people."
Taking his hunch to the laboratory bench, Ovadia's initial experiments proved to be true - his savory cinnamon extract was able to quickly and effectively immunize chicken embryos against the Newcastle disease virus - one which costs the poultry industry in the US millions of dollars a year.
Further studies on Avian Flu H9, Sendai virus, the HIV virus, and Herpes Simplex 1 also achieved positive results. Not only was the extract able to neutralize the viruses, it also showed for selected viruses that it has the potential to immunize against them as well.
Now before people start dropping cinnamon sticks in their hot chocolate and sprinkling it all over their lattes - take note that the cinnamon extract developed by Ovadia has special properties that won't be found at coffee shops or in the kitchen cupboard. First of all, it comes from a special variety of cinnamon; coumarin and cinnamon aldehyde, which are by-products of cinnamon 'juice.' These are actually damaging to the liver in high quantities, and must be removed.
"You cannot take high doses from the natural form of cinnamon," Ovadia said. "If you used it several times a day to protect you from the flu, it would be toxic."
During seasonal epidemics, around 10-20 percent of the world is infected with the influenza virus and the elderly and young are particularly at risk. In America alone, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 35-50 million Americans are infected with the flu every season. Despite the use of vaccines, the influenza virus is still associated with significant mortality worldwide - especially now that people travel regularly and work together in offices and closed spaces.
Moreover, the global circulation of the deadly Bird Flu H5 (with more than 50% mortality in infected humans) may cause a sudden worldwide pandemic within two to three months. Until a vaccine is invented, antivirals will be the only medical intervention for use in such a pandemic, says Ovadia.
"What we know is that this technology is capable of neutralizing viruses very fast and that it is applicable to various applications," said Dr. Nissim Chen, the business development manager of Ramot who managed the commercialization process which ended up with the licensing to Frutarom. "For example, it can be used in air conditioning systems in hospitals and can prevent infections spreading from one person to another in closed spaces."
There is a growing tendency for researchers and clinicians to explore natural compounds against disease, agrees Chen, adding that Ovadia is well-known for his work in natural inhibitors of snake venom.
"This work with cinnamon is really an extension of his research. And at Tel Aviv University in general, there are several groups working on biological and chemical structure of natural inhibitors," he said.
Besides the human application, Ovadia sees that cinnamon fills an important niche in the agriculture industry where chicks need to be immunized by hand against the deadly Newcastle disease virus.
"If someone needs to immunize 1,000 chicks through drops in the chick's eye, then we know they are not doing this accurately - it is also an issue of animal welfare," says Ovadia.
Instead, he believes, "we will be able to administer this cinnamon extract through a tiny pin prick in the shell before the chick hatches." Such an immunization gives the chickens protection against the Newcastle virus, Ovadia assures.
Applying this research on a global scale could only be done with the help of a large company - which is where Frutarom comes in. The Israeli-based flavor and food additive company has grown in the last 10-15 years from $10 million a year to a projected $350 million by the end of 2007.
"We're going to take this know-how from a food supplement to protect people from illness to neutraceuticals in drugs; it can also be used in agriculture against Bird Flu - certainly it represents a very diversified product line," said Frutarom's CEO Ori Yehudai.
According to the company, Ovadia will continue to lead research into the development of the extract, and Frutarom estimates that the new cinnamon product will be launched in about a year. Hopefully just before flu season.