An over-the-counter product for treating warts and shingles is coming from an unusual place: lobsters.
A Maine lobster researcher is hoping to harvest the sea critter's blood and put it to new uses.
"We have tissue culture experiments that demonstrate that it's antiviral," said Robert Bayer, one of the researchers behind the venture.
Bayer, the executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine in Orono, has a patent filing that details the use "crustacean hemolymph... for a pharmaceutical and/or cosmetic treatment of viral and other neoplastic or pre-neoplastic mammalian tissue legions."
To put this patent to use, Bayer has teamed with Cathy Billings, associate director of the Lobster Institute, as well as a retired New York ad exec, among others. The university isn't part of the venture, known as Lobster Unlimited LLC. (It was first reported by the Bangor Daily News.)
The start-up's first product is expected to be a cream that will be known as LobsteRx, according to Billings. She wouldn't divulge how much lobster serum is needed for each container, although she indicated that the serum is "the major active ingredient" and added that shea butter also might be added as an ingredient.
The serum is harvested from the lobsters using a syringe technique that enters the lobster's soft tissue. The company also has been testing a type of vacuum pressure to assist in the process.
The good news is the lobster is still edible after the serum is extracted. The group plans to work with lobsters used in the meat-processing market or for frozen tails.
"One of the things that happens during the processing is they bleed out," said Bayer. "So it's not that different than the normal process. There are massive amounts of blood you're (processors) paying sewer charges on."
The American Lobster species will be used for the serum or hemolymph. Each lobster can provide about one-eighth of a cup of the liquid, which means a 90-pound crate of lobsters can yield roughly a gallon of serum in less than an hour.
"What makes us unique is that we can collect millions of pounds of [lobster serum]," said Bayer. "That is something — the serum — that's currently going down the drain."
Bayer, who has nearly 40 years' experience studying lobsters, estimates that the venture could get about 5 million pounds of lobster serum per year from about 60 million to 80 million pounds of processed lobsters. (Maine alone harvested just over 120 million pounds of lobster in 2015).
Bayer said they hope to use the so-called cosmeceutical development path "with no real claims," with the aim of launching the topical product as early as this fall. He said the company eventually plans to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
But FDA approval involves a lengthy process, which is one of the reasons the company plans to use the cosmeceutical route to go to market. Then, it will use the proceeds from those sales to then pursue FDA approval, which would require clinical trials to be conducted.
Retailers already have expressed interest in the concept product, though Bayer wouldn't reveal any names except to say it includes "one that you would recognize." The sale price of the LobsteRx skin cream product hasn't been determined.
A Maine seafood processor, Cape Seafood, is working with the company behind LobsteRx "to continue advancements and explore" the possibility of becoming a regular supplier. Using the serum is seen as supporting efforts that seek to make the most of the entire lobster.
According to Bayer, the serum of other crustaceans and sea creatures, such as mollusks, have been documented to also have some antiviral properties. He said that is one of the reasons he started researching the value of lobster blood to treat various ailments.
As for the lobster blood-based product, Bayer has done tests of the serum product on himself and at least 20 others. The product can reduce warts in roughly a week, though some people might show results in just four days, Bayer said.
"It's all friends and family at this point," he said.
Besides warts and shingles, Bayer said it can be used for eczema and something known as molluscum contagiosum, a common skin rash in children.