Revolutionary Microcapsules

By Ragnhild Krogvig Karlsen
January 29, 2007

Over the next 20 years, biotechnology will change global food production and the fight against disease. The research conducted in these areas will be of decisive importance. Nobipol is a leading research centre that is world famous for its alginate capsules. The Centre is also a pioneer within gene therapy and future food storage with substances from crustaceans and marine plants.


New breakthroughs with biopolymers
Nobipol is conducting research into one of the most flexible raw materials there is – biopolymers. Biopolymers are complex molecules found in living organisms, in plants and animals, on land and in the sea. They function as building blocks in connective tissues, membranes and mucous membranes with humans and animals and form protective layers in blood vessels and intestinal walls. For this reason they are not only used for food production, but also within revolutionary medical treatment.

”With biopolymers such as alginate and chitosan we can make anything from fibres to strong gels and capsules, and by using new methods we are now able to design substances and tailor them for specific purposes," says Professor Bjørn E. Christensen, research coordinator at the Centre.

No more injections for diabetics
As early as the mid-1990s, professors Olav Smidsrød and Gudmund Sjåk-Brek at Nobipol achieved a breakthrough by successful alginate encapsulation of insulin-producing cells designed for implantation in the body of those suffering from diabetes. The alginate that encapsulated these microcapsules was produced from kelp.

”At the time, we had built up unique knowledge about the chemistry and the physical properties of alginate molecules were documented in 200 scientific papers," says Professor emeritus Olav Smidsrød.

”For the past two years, we have been able to produce new alginate types by synthetic bacteria which yield substances with even greater mechanical strength and stability and less swelling,” says Professor Christensen.

New alginate-encapsulated microcapsules, known in American research environments as TAM (Trondheim Alginate Microcapsule), are soon to be clinically tested in Chicago. They represent another breakthrough because of their improved durability and properties that prevent the immune system from attacking them.

Creative research environment
In addition to the revolutionary alginate research, the 40 researchers at Nobipol conduct basic research into the physical properties and technological potential of substances such as chitosan, sphagnan, marine collagens, carrageenans and agars, scleroglucans, and chitosan-based nanoparticles for non-viral gene-delivery.

Nobipol consists of several research groups and laboratories which are connected and work in close cooperation.

”Biopolymer engineering functions as a unifying strategy and we cover all aspects from genetics to industrial applications,” explains Olav Smidsrød. In 1989, he established the Centre in cooperation with physicist Arnljot Elgsæter, with a view to the exploit biopolymers and polysaccharides for innovations within oil production as well as medicine.

Marine resources and billion-dollar industry
Nobipol worked for five years on the development of Gaviscon – an alginate-based medicine against heartburn. Today, this is one of the best-selling medicines on prescription in Britain. Remedies for healing wounds are also made of alginate. In total, the pharmaceutical industry sells alginate products for billions of dollars every year.

With its extensive coastline, Norway has an excellent supply of marine biopolymers from seaweed, kelp, crabs, prawns, and fish. In addition to the annual harvest of

200 000 tonnes of seaweed for the production of alginate products, fish skins are used for gelatine, and crab and prawn shells are used in the production of chitin.

Chitosan packets for gene therapy
”One of our most exciting fields at the moment is chitosans. We have developed, published, and patented a new generation chitosan-based transfection agents. These have been commercialized by FMC NovaMatrix in Oslo and are sold for USD 50 per milligramme,” says Professor Christensen.

“The chitosan ‘packs’ DNA into tiny nanoparticles that are more easily absorbed by the target cell. The advantages of chitosan compared to commonly used synthetic substances are improved biocompatibility and much lower toxicity,” Christensen continues.

The development of efficient packing agents is the greatest challenge in gene therapy and much of modern cell research.

Nobipol's next-door neighbour is NTNU Nanolab which includes Scandinavia's most advanced instrument for measuring forces at nanolevel. "The link to nanotechnology will be very important in the future, and we look forward to close cooperation. The ability to manipulate substances on an even smaller scale than today will offer practically endless possibilities within biotechnology,” Professor Christensen concludes.


The vision of The Norwegian Biopolymer Laboratory (NOBIPOL) is to establish and develop an internationally leading group in the field of biopolymer engineering. Emphasis is placed on marine polysaccharides including the macromolecular interactions that form the basis for their biological and technical properties.

Host institution:
Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Faculty of Natural Sciences and Technology

Research Centre Managment:
Director: Professor Gudmund Skjåk-Bræk
Research coordinator: Professor Bjørn E. Christensen
The Centre is collectively managed by ‘The PL group’: Professor Gudmund Skjåk-Bræk, Professor Kjell M. Vårum, Professor Kurt I. Draget, Professor Svein Valla, Professor Bjørn T. Stokke, Professor Terje Espevik, Professor Emeritus Olav Smidsrød

Number of staff and PhD candidates:
Approx. 40

Norwegian partners/collaborators:
NTNU (Department of Biotechnology, Department of Physics, Department of Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine). University of Oslo. The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). Norwegian School of Veterinary Science. SINTEF Materials and Chemistry.

International partners/collaborators:
Osaka Prefectural University, Japan. CERMAV (CNRS), France. University of Trieste, Italy and others.

Industrial partners/collaborators:
FMC Biopolymer AS (NovaMatrix), AlgiPharma AS, Advanced Biopolymers AS, ProBio Nutraceuticals AS, Tine BA, Vireo AS, Cryotech Seafood AS, Kilda Biolink AS, Biotec Pharmacon AS and several other contractual partners.

Postal address:
NOBIPOLc/o Department of Biotechnology, NTNU
NO-7491 Trondheim

Annual budget:
NOK 15 million (EUR 1.8 million, USD 2.36 million, approximately)

Duration of project:
1989 - present