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Cawthron Institute signs up global partner to sell valuable marine biotoxins used in shellfish testing

Unique marine biotoxins valued at over $100,000 per teaspoonful will be supplied to laboratories worldwide in a global distribution deal between Cawthron Institute and international analytical and chemical company Sigma-Aldrich Corp.

The Nelson-based Cawthron Institute, the country's largest independent science organisation, is one of a only a few worldwide producers of the marine biotoxins used as reference materials when testing whether shellfish are edible. Cawthron produces the toxins using a process it pioneered in 2000, involving extracting, isolating, and purifying the bioactive compounds from toxin-producing microalgae grown and processed on site.

The commercialisation deal was developed with $60,000 of seed funding last year from KiwiNet, which helps universities and crown research institutes scale their science and technology-based innovation. Cawthron Institute chief executive Charles Eason said the KiwiNet funds had helped it capitalise on long-standing marine toxin and food safety research.

"The partnership adds a new suite of products to Sigma-Aldrich's catalogue, supports laboratories worldwide to improve identification of human health risks from algae, and generates high-value exports for New Zealand," he said.

The partnership with Sigma-Aldrich will see Cawthron deliver a new product range and provide easier access to the toxins for scientists worldwide.

Under the four-year contract, Sigma-Aldrich has agreed to pay a minimum figure annually for the toxins which are sold in minute quantities - a microgram or milligram at a time. Cawthron's analytical services technical manager Paul McNabb said over the four years it hoped for a ten-fold rise in current sales of around $250,000 annually. The cost of producing the marine biotoxins is high and increased volumes need to be sold to make it profitable, he said.

Cawthron has more than 30 years' experience with microalgae and the same team was involved in 2009 in solving the mystery dog deaths on Auckland's North Shore which turned out to be from ingesting toxic sea slugs.

After some Kiwis fell sick from eating shellfish affected by algal blooms in the 1990s, the researchers developed the first instrumental test method for marine toxins in seafood. This required Cawthron to produce its own standard reference material for a range of toxins from scratch. Although algae blooms are common, most are harmless with only a few producing the toxins that can affect humans and animals.

Cawthron's testing method has now become the standard worldwide and was recently mandated by the European Union. That has slowly driven increased demand for the expensive reference materials. It replaced the existing crude mouse-based test which McNabb said took too long to show results for Kiwi shellfish exporters who already had their products on containers en route to markets by the time any toxin was revealed.

The institute initially looked to partner with the National Research Council, the Canadian government's leading research and technology organisation, which also produces the marine biotoxins. But he said "getting a commercial deal with a non-commercial outfit" proved too hard while Sigma-Aldrich turned out to be a good fit in terms of accepting the long-term nature of the payback.