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The Rare Path Taken

by A. Maureen Rouhi
June 3, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 22

Rare are those who walk less traveled paths and succeed. Among them is the Brazilian entrepreneur Luiz Fernando Farah.

I met Farah at the ACS national meeting in New Orleans. At a press conference about bacterial cellulose, he demonstrated how crisp sheets of the material resist tearing when dry and got even tougher when wet.

Dubbed the Rolls-Royce of celluloses, bacterial cellulose (BC) is more crystalline and thicker than plant cellulose; it forms fibrils with more hydrogen bonds per unit area. And because BC forms a thick film in fermentation cultures, it is purified more easily than plant cellulose, which is impregnated with lignin.

BC is poised for commercialization in medical care, tissue engineering, and other applications, said entrepreneurs in New Orleans. Many of these entrepreneurs are Ph.D. researchers who have been studying the bacteria and developing applications and commercial production methods.

Not Farah. A college dropout, Farah is an unlikely pioneer of BC applications, which could be worth $250 million in North America alone by 2020. He did it through self-study, determination, and unswerving belief in his invention.

Farah encountered BC in 1984 when his grandmother claimed to have been cured of an earache by “algae water.” Concerned, Farah examined the odd treatment and found a “dark yellow liquid smelling like strong vinegar, with some gel-like things floating on it.”

At the Federal University of Paraná, in Brazil, scientists identified in the liquid a wild strain of Acetobacter xylinum and the floating gel as BC. As Farah read the literature, one statement struck him: “Despite being the purest cellulose found in nature, there is no commercial interest in this material, since the productivity does not allow any kind of commercial exploitation.”

The purest cellulose in nature must have some use, Farah thought. Studying on his own, he learned how to culture the bacteria and produce clean, dry BC sheets. Inasmuch as cotton is used to cover wounds, he reasoned, “if I put this material over a wound ... I would be putting exactly the same material, only in a different format.” He tested the hypothesis when one of his fingers formed a blister. He peeled the blister skin and applied BC. The film adhered for days until the wound healed, he recalled.

Although a college dropout, Farah immersed himself in subjects he liked. His father was medical doctor, and his family had a library. He started reading very early, he recalled, but “I was not a good student in school, because I just studied what I like. I know how to focus on what I want.”

Farah explained BC’s effect to his father, who agreed to test BC in the hospital where he worked. The first patient had second-degree burns on both hands. Because Farah had only one sample of BC film, only one hand got it; the other received gauze and bandage. The next day, the patient asked for film on the other hand, too, because the film-treated hand didn’t hurt, while the other still throbbed with pain.

Farah had discovered that BC films could be used as wound dressing that doesn’t need to be changed and works like a second skin. BC film applied to burns—some of Farah’s slides are too painful to view—works wonders. By Farah’s calculation, use of BC as a dry wound dressing could cut treatment costs by up to 70%.

Over 30 years, Farah secured intellectual property rights, sought investors, conducted clinical trials, started the Brazilian company BioFill, and searched for a global partner. He struck a deal in 1995, but the partner was acquired, the buyer terminated the BC project, and BioFill collapsed. “I tried to restart the business,” Farah said, “but Brazil was not the right place.”

Farah’s technology has a new home in Cellaxis, based in Chicago. The company is seeking a North American site for a BC production facility. I hope it succeeds in launching BC as dry wound dressing in the U.S. Even now, however, Farah already has achieved success because, as others in New Orleans said, his pioneering work has encouraged full development of a most promising material.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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