© Enea

Enea, a research institute of the Italian government, has patented a process that allows the synthesis of an important category of bioactive molecules. The molecules offer proven protection against maculopathy, a degenerative disease of the retina that, according to recent studies, is expected to affect 288 million people globally by 2040.

The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules from edible products such as tomatoes and yeast can be used to manufacture drugs to treat eye diseases. They can also be used in the food and cosmetics industries.

Saffron crocus

In particular, the innovative aspect of the process enables the synthesis of molecules, such as crocin that is a chemical compound found especially in the flowers of the saffron crocus. Specifically, crocin and carotenoids -such as lutein and zeaxanthin – provide proven protection against maculopathy. This form of eye disease leads to poor vision in the center of the eye. 

The saffron crocus is grown on a limited scale around the world. “To produce all the crocin that’s needed to prevent maculopathy, it would be necessary to double the world production of saffron, a rare and expensive spice. In addition, everything would then have to be earmarked for this purpose,” says Sarah Frusciante, a researcher at Enea’s biotechnology laboratory. She and three others are also patent holders of the process. The study was recently published in the journal ‘Plant Physiology‘. 

Bixa orellana

“Our work opens up a new scenario for the safe and low-cost production of these molecules, proving that biotechnology makes it possible to produce crocin in safe, edible products such as yeast and tomato,” Frisciante says.

“We have identified a novel enzyme in the orlean tree (scientific name: Bixa orellana) that is capable of synthesizing crocin from carotenoids that are widely available, such as beta-carotene from carrots and lycopene from tomatoes, which complements a range of enzymes that we have already identified in previous studies.”

The ENEA research has so far yielded 2 patents and 8 publications, paving the way for the production of crocin from plants.

Also interesting: thanks to AI, maculopathy can be predicted

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