Martek Corp. of Columbia has received $600,000 in three federal research grants to develop everything from amino acids for use in drug research to ways to include fat-fighting additives in such foods as margarine and salad dressing.
The three grants came from the National Institutes of Health and are called small-business innovation research grants, said Henry "Pete" Linsert Jr., chairman of Martek, a small biotechnology company that is researching ways to make drugs and food additives from micro-algae.
The two smaller grants, for $50,000 each, are aimed at allowing large-scale production of food additives.
Martek will use one grant to develop ways to use algae to aid the production of beta-carotene, a substance found in carrots that is similar to Vitamin A. Mr. Linsert said the grant will let researchers make bigger quantities of natural beta-carotene more cheaply than can be done now.
The other grant will pay Martek to figure out how to modify other algae so they can grow on glucose without being exposed to light. Those algae contain a fatty acid known as EPA, which is also found in fish, that helps the body resist the effects of high-fat foods on the cardiovascular system, he said. "This is why fish is good for you," Mr. Linsert said.
"The idea is to make EPA inexpensively," Mr. Linsert said. "The idea is that you could add it to salad dressing or margarine, and put the antidote to fat right in with the fat."
The biggest grant -- $500,000 -- will pay Martek to develop amino acids that drug designers can use to modify cells of Chinese hamster ovaries. The acids also will let researchers learn more about the structure of the hamster cells, which will help them learn how to turn them into pharmaceuticals. Researchers believe the hamster cells can produce useful drugs if properly modified, Mr. Linsert said.
"The purpose of the grants is to develop the ingredients -- the amino acids -- to be able to grow [hamster] cells," Mr. Linsert said. "A scientist can track these special amino acids. They jump out and say, 'Here I am,' so you can see what they're doing and where they are. . . . When you understand how it's structured, you can understand how it works."