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Food meets pharma: Nestle opens new unit to centralise global clinical development work

Nestlé opened a new clinical development unit this week to conduct trials into nutrition for both sick and healthy people, as the food industry comes under pressure to back up health claims for its products with scientific research.

Regulators are cracking down on health claims on food, which can be a powerful marketing tool and allow firms to charge more for products with apparent nutritional enhancements.

“Our clinical development work ultimately provides the scientific evidence as to whether our ingredients, new products and reformulations are effective in delivering consumer benefits,” Nestlé technology chief Werner Bauer said.

“The new CDU is a strategic fit with our research and development commitment to provide innovative solutions for nutrition, health and wellness. We are not trying to copy pharma here. We are extending the range and the role of food into the next century.”

Nestlé, which makes much of turnover from sweet treats like ice cream, KitKat bars and Nesquik chocolate milk, is trying to reinvent itself as “the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company” to sell more high-margin “functional food”.

Consultancy PriceWaterhouseCoopers has forecast that sales of “functional food” could grow at as much as 20 percent per year, well ahead of the rest of the industry.

“We clearly see a faster growth of the products that are positioned as nutrition, health and wellness products,” said Thomas Beck, director of the Nestlé Research Centre, which employs 700 scientists, including 40 at the new unit.

But food companies face a challenge to convince regulators of their health claims.

The US FDA ruled in 2009 that Nestlé had made misleading claims about the health benefits of some of its drinks for children, while European authorities have rejected a claim by French food giant Danone that its top-selling Actimel dairy drink reduced the risk of diarrhea.

The European Commission last month approved a list of 222 health claims on food based on scientific advice, but rejected 1 600 others and gave the food industry until the end of the year to remove misleading claims.

Rafael Crabbe, head of the new unit who used to work in the pharma industry, said Nestlé scientists were following the same standards and methodologies for trials as drug companies although it was often harder to prove heath claims for food.

“When it comes to showing specific health benefits, food is a complex environment. The benefits of food are more subtle, more complicated,” he said.

Purpose-built facility

Nestlé’s new Clinical Development Unit (CDU), purpose-built in Lausanne, Switzerland, will allow it to more effectively and efficiently evaluate the impact of its foods and ingredients on human biology and health, as well as on taste and pleasure.

Clinical trials are recognised by food authorities around the world as a robust way of evaluating the effect of nutrients or foods on consumers.

Nestlé has a long track record of carrying out clinical trials and publishing the results worldwide. The company had more than 100 ongoing clinical trials in 2011 and expects to carry out more than this in future.

Nestlé’s CDU will provide medical expertise in different therapeutic areas. It will also offer specialist knowhow in project management, data management and biostatistics – the use of statistics in the analysis of biological data.

It is the first time Nestlé has brought the management of its global clinical trials programme under one roof.

The CDU houses a ‘Metabolic Unit’ for metabolic studies in healthy people, as well in those with health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis.

It will meet the company’s growing demand for in-house nutrition studies following the establishment of the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciencesand Nestlé Health Science in 2010.

The unit has exercise equipment to test strength, speed and endurance, and specialist scanners for measuring bone density and body composition. It has ‘indirect calorimetry’ equipment for scientists to measure the energy people expend at rest and during exercise.

It includes sensory booths, a kitchen and a dining area, and a clinical observation space for metabolic studies.

The Metabolic Unit has been accredited as an affiliated private health facility by the local cantonal authorities.

The CDU’s location will enable its researchers to work closely with other Nestlé scientists from the Nestlé Research Center and from the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences, which are also based in Lausanne.

The CDU will also work with many Nestlé R&D centres around the world, as well as in collaboration with universities worldwide.

Nestlé’s global R&D network comprises 32 Research, Development and Technology Centres and employs more than 5,000 people.

Nestlé adheres to the World Medical Association’s ‘Declaration of Helsinki’, which outlines ethical principles for research involving human subjects.

All the company’s clinical trials are conducted according to Good Clinical Practice (GCP), an internationally recognised quality standard.

Its new CDU will oversee many different types of clinical trials, including randomised controlled trials.

It will also be responsible for managing all studies carried out in-house in the Metabolic Unit, ensuring they meet all relevant local regulations and GCP.

Caption: Nestlé Head of the Clinical Development Unit, Rafael Crabbe, looks at a test person undergoing a whole body indirect calorimetry test in the Nestlé metabolic unit in Lausanne.

Source: Nestle, Reuters

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