Jack Losso | 7/22/2005 2:02:01 AM
Louisiana produces about a million pounds of alligator waste – primarily carcasses – each year, and Texas, Georgia and Florida produce another 800,000 or so pounds a year.
"That’s close to 2 million pounds of waste nobody uses," says Dr. Jack Losso, a researcher in the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Food Science.
If Losso and his colleagues have their way, that waste will be turned into a usable product – collagen.
Losso’s team includes LSU AgCenter fisheries and coastal issues agent Mark Schexnayder, AgCenter aquaculture agent Mark Shirley and AgCenter Food Science Department faculty members Dr. Michael Moody and Dr. Jon Bell, as well as Dr. Ralph Portier from the LSU Department of Environmental Studies.
They have been working with Harlon Pearce, owner of LA Fish LLC in Kenner and chairman of Louisiana's Seafood Promotion Board, on a National Sea Grant-sponsored project to develop the extraction process.
"We now want to take it to the next level," Schexnayder says.
The cosmetic industry uses collagen in manufacturing personal care products, and the food industry uses collagen as a source for gelatin as well as for clarifying alcoholic beverages and other uses. In addition, successful medical and pharmaceutical applications of commercially available collagen include the treatment of hypertension, urinary incontinence and pain associated with osteoarthritis and inhibition of cancer spread in the body.
Losso says collagen has a variety of uses in biomedical applications.
"First is tissue engineering – creating artificial skin for grafts for burn victims and other applications," he says. "Second is wound healing – companies are interested in putting collagen in bandages. It also can be used in emergency rooms for stopping bleeding."
Most commercial collagen currently is derived from cattle and swine, but Losso says "mad cow disease" in England and Canada has made collagen users "anxious and looking for other sources."
Experts say collagen is unique among body proteins because it contains hydroxyproline amino acids. It is the single most important protein of connective tissue and serves as the matrix on which bone is formed. Collagen and collagen-derived products from warm-blooded animal byproducts, however, have been called into question because of concern that bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease") may be transmitted to humans.
Collagen from animals is widely used in cooking. Like most proteins, collagen loses all of its structure when it’s cooked, and when it cools down, it soaks up water, forming gelatin.
Losso and Schexnayder say marine collagen offers an alternative to collagen from cattle or swine. Shark collagen has long been used as an alternative, particularly for medical uses.
Collagen from sharks is used to create biomedical materials that include wound coverings, artificial skin, artificial bone, artificial cartilage, artificial tendons and surgical sutures.
Commercial collagen also comes from marine animals – primarily sharks, but also from other fish.
"We started with removing collagen from fish skins – black drum and sheepshead – about two years ago and have a patent pending on the technique we developed," Losso says. Now, they’re using the same process to get collagen from alligators, too.
"We’ve extracted collagen from the alligator cartilage and compared it with collagen from shark cartilage," Losso says.
The LSU AgCenter researcher said he sees "a very striking similarity, biochemically speaking" between shark collagen and alligator collagen. Both are stable above human body temperature, which Losso says is an important biomedical property, so it doesn’t deteriorate.
"What we produce is almost 100 percent pure," Losso says. "The next step is FDA certification."
Losso says the nutraceutical industry is growing rapidly, and marine collagen is one of the stars of the show. "We want our Louisiana business to be in a position to take advantage of these new markets," he says.
The researchers also are studying possible unique characteristics such as tumor inhibition from reptile collagen. "If this pans out, it could be another tool for oncologists to use in cancer prevention and treatment," Losso says.
Losso says an important aspect of using alligators as a source of collagen is that the process uses food-grade materials and equipment.
"The collagen is extracted in a water solution," Losso says. "Everything is a food-grade process that’s generally recognized as safe."
In addition to collagen, alligator carcasses yield two other compounds – elastin and proteoglycol, which are enzyme inhibitors. Losso says researchers also suspect there may be other important compounds to be found in alligator carcasses.
The U.S. Department of Commerce initially provided funding through the Sea Grant College Program to study collagen from fish skins, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided funding for the studies of collagen from alligators.
Losso and Schexnayder recently received a "proof of concept" grant from Greater New Orleans Inc. to fund "making small batches of the alligator and marine collagen to give to interested potential industrial partners," Schexnayder says.
"One of our objectives is to make the waste stream from fish and alligator processing facilities into a positive cash flow instead of a business expense."