Silkworm extracts lead the way to cheap and efficient pharmaceutical production

The proteins extracted from the silkworms can revolutionize vaccination.

Scientist's hands in rubber gloves are holding a Petri dish with some liquid in it.
Scientist's hands in rubber gloves are holding a Petri dish with some liquid in it.
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While not the most visually attractive beings on our planet worms and insects have always been a vital part of our everyday life. In some cultures, they are an essential part of the local cuisine. Others are only starting to familiarize themselves with their benefits. For example, Fazer, one of the major bakeries in Finland, has introduced cricket bread.

In Japan as well as in some other Asian countries, silkworms occupy a special place. For many centuries countries were and still are dependent on them as the producers of the lightweight and breathing natural material that goes for export. However, there is more to silkworms than just the fiber they produce. Recently, Japanese startup Kaico (meaning silkworm) embarked on exploring other useful features of these insects. Located in Fukuoka in a southwestern Japan, Kaico started its operation in 2017 aiming to produce pharmaceutical products using proteins derived from silkworms.

The process

Kaico plans to manufacture materials that will be used in regenerative reagents for different kinds of medicine. Operations started in the middle of 2018. Later the company aims to develop vaccines for humans and diagnostic medicines for animal use. In order to do that, Kaico will extract useful elements (namely, proteins) from the silkworms. Kaico is basing its extraction techniques on the information from the research of Takahiro Kusakabe, professor of agricultural bioresource sciences at the Kyushu University.

First, the company can harness silkworms with vectors, viruses that carry genes. Then, vectors will multiply in the bodies of silkworms together with the useful proteins. Finally, Kaico will use these proteins to develop pharmaceutical base products. The technology required to do this is already available, and it was developed by Noriho Kamiya, professor of applied chemistry at Kyushu University.

Each silkworm is capable of producing 5 milligrams of the silkworm protein, which is enough to make dozens of vaccines. At the same time, silkworms are easy to breed and maintain, not to mention how little space they require for living. Two hundred million silkworms are reared every year in Japan, way below peak production. The use of this technology is therefore expected to significantly reduce the cost of producing the required proteins.

Kaico intends to develop pharmaceutical products using proteins derived from silkworms for animal and human application. 

Partnership with the leading expert university

Kaico came into existence mainly due to the financial support of the Kyushu University, which has gained the expertize in the field by studying the silkworms for over a century. Kyushu University has one of the world’s largest stocks of silkworms with 150 000 silkworms of more than 500 different kinds and 820 strains. Many of these have been bred in the laboratory for research purposes. The university is also the main silkworm research center in the National Bio Research project, an initiative started by the Japanese government to project aims to collect and preserve Japan’s bio-resources.

It is great to see such collaborations since Japan has historically been keeping research and business apart. Monetizing the results of an academic work is still not so common in Japan but things can change quickly. In the search for innovations, Japan starts to look into new fields while also aiming to get more foreign professionals involved. Provided that the government will continue to invest in the scientific ventures, Kaico may be just one of many successful international health startups that bring on the improvements for the whole humanity.

Today’s “otsumami” – a bite size snack:

Many new ideas can be inspired by familiar things if you can see them from a different angle.

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