Sleep protein discovery could spark more research

Elizabeth Swan reveals that innovators have been experimenting to find alternative uses for the plant-based proteins commonly found in food supplements, with some unexpected and beneficial results.
Recently a team of scientists at Healthy Skoop, a company that manufactures plant-based nutrition, has developed a new ‘sleep protein’ product containing tryptophan, a naturally-occurring amino acid that is known to induce sleep. The product is part of a growing trend in the use of specially formulated protein powders to treat lifestyle-related conditions, such as insomnia.
Tryptophan, which is commonly found in turkey, chicken, nuts, seeds, cheese, eggs, beans and lentils, is needed for normal growth and development and is known to improve sleep latency by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. The ‘sleep protein’ product being marketed by Healthy Skoop also contains tart cherry extract, which is a rich source of melatonin, a hormone that helps to control the body’s sleep and wake cycles.
While there is no evidence that Healthy Skoop has obtained a patent for its invention of ‘sleep protein’, it is interesting that an essential amino acid that is commonly found in protein-based food stuffs has been combined with a hormone-rich fruit extract to create what could be a unique formulation. This development reflects growing interest around the world in functional foods, which contain an ingredient that gives health-promoting properties over and above its usual nutritional value.
Some recent examples of patented technologies linked to the development of functional foods containing tryptophan originate in Asia. A Chinese inventor named Lingjiau Kong, has recently applied for patent protection in China for a rice cake with the effect of improving sleep quality. Made from glutinous rice flour and a wide range of other ingredients including passion fruit juice, ginseng, red dates and peanut oil, the rice cakes also include vitamin A, vitamin B1 and tryptophan. The patent application relates to the preparation method of the rice cake, which, it is said, can be scaled up as necessary and is easy to implement.
Another patent application by Wuhan Hava Bioscience Ltd, also based in China, is for a functional food for improving sleep. This product is made from precise quantities of various seed and plant extracts combined with tryptophan, calcium lactate and magnesium lactate and tests are said to show that it helps to regulate sleep and improve sleep quality.
As these innovations show, it is sometimes possible to obtain patent protection for a new combination of a naturally-occurring ingredient with well-known health-giving benefits with one or more other ingredients, especially when the combination results in a synergistic effect. In such cases, a patent may be obtained for the unique formulation. In other cases, it may be possible to obtain patent protection for innovative methods of preparation, new uses or for specific dosage regimens.
Before rushing out to develop other functional foods containing tryptophan, or other essential amino acids for that matter, it is important to check the patent landscape to eliminate the risk of a third-party infringement action. There is a precedent for pharmaceutical companies finding that certain medicinal products have a second use in the less-regulated nutraceuticals and functional foods space. Often the original patent application relates to the compound itself, and therefore is broad enough in scope to protect all uses, known and unknown at the filing date. It is also advisable to seek professional advice to ensure patentability criteria are met, and to avoid wasting money on patent applications that will never be granted.
Growing interest in protein powders and the health benefits they can bring is creating interest in this area of innovation and patent protection can play an important role in helping innovators to commercialise their inventions in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Elizabeth Swan is a senior associate and patent attorney specialising in life sciences, chemistry and formulations at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.

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