Science close to unlocking velvet’s secret

New Zealand and South Korean scientists believe they will soon be able to identify the compounds that give deer antler velvet its immune-boosting properties.

If they are successful, it will allow velvet extracts to be sold with a precise measure of the active ingredients they contain. Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) says this will be an important step in getting such products registered for sale as healthy functional foods.

“Velvet’s reputation as a health tonic goes back more than 1000 years and it is still widely used in Korea and China in mixtures with ginseng and herbs in tonics and traditional medicines,” says DINZ chief executive Dan Coup.

“But these days, government regulators and consumers everywhere want the claims made for medicines and tonics to be supported by scientific evidence. It appears that we are on the threshold of doing this with at least one of the health-promoting properties attributed to velvet.”

AgResearch scientist Dr Stephen Haines says bioactive compounds in velvet have been of great interest to NZ scientists since research began in the 1990s.

“We had shown that velvet extracts boosted immune function both in cell-lines and in animals, but we didn’t know what was doing it. Velvet is a very complex mixture of thousands of components, making it very difficult to isolate and identify the ones that are biologically active,” he says.

Until now.

Recent improvements in mass spectrometry and high-speed data processing have made it possible for researchers to sort through the thousands of peptides, proteins and related compounds in velvet, to find the ones with bioactive properties.

The research is being carried out by AgResearch on behalf of VARNZ, a joint venture between DINZ and AgResearch, with critical support from the Korean Ginseng Corporation (KGC).

“We have built a close, trusting relationship with the KGC, working together on market development and access, and now we are working together in research,” says DNZ chief executive Dan Coup.

KGC is the world’s largest ginseng company, with annual sales of $US800 million, based on 200 ginseng-based products. In recent years, the company has developed 19 products that also contain deer velvet and in so doing, has become the largest buyer of the New Zealand product.

In last two years KGC has provided the AgResearch velvet research team with samples of four different velvet extracts for further analysis. Each of them had been shown in in-vitro studies to boost immune function to varying degrees. The most active and one of the least active was then further tested by KGC in an animal study.

The most active extract consistently stimulated high levels of activity in the natural killer cells that fight infection in an animal before the immune system starts producing antibodies. It also had good anti-inflammatory properties.

By comparing this extract with the one with the weaker response, the researchers have identified several protein fragments and a peptide that are associated with immune activity. These may be the active ingredients or they may be markers for other bioactive compounds.

“We are now testing them on two different types of human cell to assess their immune boosting function. If we identify the active ingredients, that would support the development of a standardised product for immune function,” Dr Haines says.

This would be an important step in getting velvet products registered as healthy functional foods in China or Korea, adding considerable value to NZ velvet.

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