Biohit has worked closely with scientists at the University of Helsinki who have been studying the neutralising effects of the amino acid cysteine on acetaldehyde, a carcinogen that is dissolved from tobacco into the saliva and from alcohol by microbes in the mouth.
It announced this week that its first product, a chewing gum called XyliCyst (with the sweetener Xylitol) will launch later this year.
The company has forged a collaboration with Finnish gum producer Fennobon for the manufacturing of the product, and will be relying on its established distribution channels in the first instance.
But Biohit president and CEO Osmo Suovaniemi, MD, PhD, told NutraIngredients that the gum is only a model. The real potential for cysteine lies in gastrointestinal health, and the introduction of capsules, known as BioCyst (also in collaboration with Fennobon) is planned in about nine months time.
This is the first time that Biohit has been involved in supplements and food ingredients, and it is a direction that has been born out of its diagnostics division.
The company has developed a diagnostic tool called GastroPanel. This simple blood test gives the diagnosis of dyspepsia, H. pylori infection, and atrophic gastritis.
Suovaniemi told NutraIngredients.com that also most half the population has H. pylori, and almost half of those develop atrophic gastritis, which in turn leads to an increased risk of stomach cancer, peptic ulcers and vitamin B12 deficiency.
If a person has atrophic gastritis, it means they have low acid in their stomach. This makes them more susceptible to bacteria travelling down from the mouth and colonising the stomach.
With the consumption of sugars and carbohydrates, which form part of most balanced meals, the oral bacteria can elicit the production of acetaldehyde in the stomach.
Cysteine delivered to the stomach in BioCyst capsults forms a stable compound with carcinogenic acetaldehyde, making the acetaldehyde inactive.
Although BioCyst capsules will be available over-the-counter, it is expected that a large portion of sales will be prompted by physician advice, following the results of a GastroPanel test.
This means that there is a huge market of people who could benefit from cysteine - around 0.5 billion people worldwide.
The global market potential for GastroPanel, BioCyst and XyliCyst combined is estimated to be as much as €5bn.
But to realise the full potential, the company need to establish partnerships with other companies in the supplements, gum and food sectors.
"As a small company, we can only reach a fraction of the market potential, so we need collaborations," Suovaniemi said.
For XyliCyst, it is eager to identify other companies specialising in chewing gum that could help it enter other markets.
(Of course, use of the gum is not intended to give smokers and drinkers a green light to continue with their habits, just to help lessen the effects, stressed Suovaniemi. "It is better to stop smoking and drinking.")
Suovaniemi said the company would also be open to supplying the technology to other supplement-makers.
Beyond gum and capsules, Biohit also holds the patent for cysteine and some other compounds in food.
It is currently identifying food and drinks that generate high levels of acedaldehyde, with a view to adding the amino acid to these to neutralise the effect. Current candidates are beer, wine and yoghurt.
Suovaniemi said that Biohit has already tested two beers - one with cysteine and one without - and found that taste was unimpaired.
To take the technology in this direction it will be looking to license the rights to its patent to players in the food industry.