Research by a United States plastic surgeon has given New Zealand’s coarse wool the opportunity to build more value for growers while helping heal wounds.
Wool sourced from sheep in NZ contains higher levels of a scleroprotein called keratin, a key structural material that protects epithelial cells from damage.
Kiri10 managing director Natalie Harrison says NZ keratin is used in dermatological treatments in dozens of countries around the world for the clinical management of wounds and severe burns, including those injured during the White Island eruption.
But the concept of consuming wool to provide a health benefit for humans is still in its infancy but is showing significant promise.
“Keratin extracted from NZ wool has been used in topical wound care for some years now following the discovery by a US surgeon that wounds heal faster closer to hair follicles where there is greater concentration of collagen.”
US scientists were able to isolate the keratin protein responsible for promoting skin healing and a parallel research process in NZ has successfully extracted it from wool.
“We now also know that this extract can help wounds heal 25% faster by stimulating collagen production, however it is only recently that we have started to look at its application for internal use in human nutrition.”
There is a close alignment between the clinical use of keratin and the cosmetic industry as both utilise the significant structural role in the formation and protection of the tissues of the hair, nails, and the outer layer of the skin this scleroprotein provides.
Globally, the cosmeceutical market is growing at more than 5% a year and is forecast to reach $100 billion within three years.
“NZ is uniquely positioned to capture a significant segment of this export market as our breeding programme has focused on coarse wool which yields higher levels of keratin than fine wool sheep breeds.”
About 80 tonnes of wool is currently sourced annually from farms in Otago and Southland and processed at a Lincoln scientific research and production facility which holds 180 patents covering the extraction of keratin from the natural fibre.
The export of keratin is already a multi-million-dollar industry for NZ reaching more than 50 markets throughout Europe, Asia and US, including some of the world’s most recognisable shampoo brands.
Significant local research, which was supported by the wool industry, has helped develop new industrial processes for the isolation of functional keratin proteins.
The technology behind these processes keeps the protein intact, increasing its bioavailability for consumption, meaning it is a 91% match with human keratin when it is absorbed internally.
“Along with the use of regeneratively-farmed wool this IP helps the industry create a competitive advantage which is unique to NZ.
“With the research support of our suppliers we are now able to use this knowledge to create a line of keratin and collagen supplements which are designed to help consumers repair and improve the health and appearance of hair, skin and nails.
“The new product line will create a third pathway for NZ’s exports as well as serving the local market,” Harrison said.
A supplement formulation containing keratin protein, collagen and other ingredients is being launched under the Kiri10 brand for the export and domestic markets.
The next stage of research will be trials around the application of keratin supplements for joint and muscle regeneration.
Campaign for Wool (NZ) chair Tom O’Sullivan says agritech companies are playing an increasing role in the development of wool exports.
“We have known for some time that NZ’s wool industry can’t easily be differentiated as a commodity supplier.
“High tech applications for regeneratively -armed wool, like the extraction of keratin for the health care and cosmeceutical industries, are helping to create new markets for wool and strengthen our brand equity internationally.”