By ISABELLA HIEW
KUALA LUMPUR: Chitosan is now the "flavour of the month" for that section of society who is obsessed with dieting or who fear climbing cholesterol level.
The dieters, having tried almost every diet regime with minimal or no success, would want a winning slimming formula while the health conscious want an easy way of grappling with cholesterol without the sweat and tears of dieting and exercise.
Their search for a miracle pill to take away the drudgery of dieting and exercise appears to be over, for chitosan, a natural fibre which is water insoluble, seems to be the answer, so the researchers say.
Extracted from prawn shells, this matter attracts and coagulates fat and oil before expelling them naturally through the bowels.
Tests conducted show that chitosan helps in weight reduction and even sceptics of the substance are said to testify to that.
Although chitosan produces no side effects, it also absorbs certain vitamins, including A,D,E and K.
Unknown to many, Malaysia's Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), is the "cradle" of chitosan study in this part of the world and they are said to be far ahead of many other countries in the Asia Pacific region.
A team of Malaysian researchers in UKM, led by former UKM professor, Dr Arisol Alimuniar, has been researching quietly on chitin and its derivative, chitosan, since 1982. "Chitin" is a Greek word meaning "overcoat".
Asso. Prof Mohamed Pauzi Abdullah of UKM's Department of Chemistry, says the study initially looked at the environmental aspect of getting rid of prawn shells as well as extracting chitin and studying its properties, especially in water treatment.
The study's findings showed great promise for chitosan but around the earlier part of the 1990s, companies approached scoffed at the idea of commercialising the production of the substance.
A Malaysian-Thai joint venture company was keen but in a twist of fate, the Thai partner bought over the company and moved operations to Thailand taking along Arisol -- and his expertise -- who helped set up the chitosan plant in the
His departure saw Pauzi heading the team comprising Asso. Prof Mat Zakaria and technicians Radzi Zainuddin, Mohamed Yazid Amir and Yusof Samah.
Arisol left a legacy though -- by having devised a method of extracting chitin and refining it to chitosan -- and this has enabled UKM to go into a joint-venture project in the commercial manufacture of chitosan.
At a Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC) exhibition several years ago, the chitosan on display caught the eye of Victor Hiew, a busimessman.
Hiew was looking for a partner to manufacture chitosan products after an initial bid to form a joint venture company with the Japanese failed.
When he approached the MTDC and UKM saying that he was interested to go into the chitosan business jointly, they were surprised because so many others had shied away.
"I told the MTDC that I have searched far and wide for a partner to produce chitosan and found it at home," says Hiew.
This event led to the formation of ChitoChem, the joint-venture company comprising UKM, MTDC, Eastern Global and Perfect Pursuit, owned by Hiew.
Pauzi says: "Chitosan produced in the country is high grade and targeted for the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries."
The UKM team is looking into finding a simpler method to extract chitin and has been able to chemically modify chitosan, making it water soluble for cosmetics, especially skincare products.
The water soluble chitosan, a highly value-added product, will go into commercial production in two months' time, according to Hiew.
"Chitosan has many more applications than just being a fat remover. It can create everything from wonder drugs, artificial skin, surgery thread and biodegradable plastics, and used as crop enhancers, animal feed and in water
treatment," Pauzi says.
"The substance also promotes rapid healing of wounds and blood clotting as well as cholesterol lowering and detoxifying by removing heavy metals in the body," he adds.
Hiew also owns a company which buys chitosan from ChitoChem to produce skincare products and chitosan capsules and tablets.
"My plans for the future include the manufacture of chitosan diapers, feminine pads, biscuits, chocolates and other food products," Hiew says.
Currently the products are marketed through direct selling in Malaysia but the company hopes to go international next year, he says.
Chitochem is a true-blue Malaysian company applying home-grown expertise using Malaysian raw materials -- prawn shells -- which are sourced by Eastern Global in Parit Buntar.
For the UKM researchers, this is not the end as they continue their research but as in the early days, they need support and funding. -- Bernama