From Mycopryl to DuoCap - the development of Biocare

In less than 20 years John & Sharon Stirling have built BioCare from a one product cottage industry into a multi million pound business. They pride themselves on BioCare’s independence - and its ability to help those whose digestive wellbeing, nutritional health and food allergy and intolerances are the despair of their practitioners as well as themselves. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson travelled the country to see how they do it.

John Stirling, a straight talking Australian, started his professional career in the Australian Health Service, inspecting the crews of foreign ships as they docked. By chance he discovered that his recurrent bouts of digestive malaise had little to do with rough seas, but much to do with a lactose intolerance.

Nutrition featured no larger in his thinking until, in the mid 1970s, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and found himself travelling to Germany to attend the medical clinic of Dr Josef Issels.

The Issels clinic
Issels' treatment was based on the concept that malignant tumours do not develop in healthy bodies with efficiently functioning defence and repair mechanisms. But it takes many years and a multiplicity of causes for bodily mechanisms to malfunction badly enough to allow malignant tumours to develop.

The removal of tumours does nothing to repair these malfunctions which is why every second cancer patient develops new tumours after surgery. Issels’ treatments therefore not only removed tumours but sought to discover and remove the underlying problems.

At the Issels clinic John not only recovered his own health but became fascinated by their work. Having qualified as a naturopath he then worked with Issels at the clinic focusing especially on the role of the digestion.

If your digestion is so compromised through illness, allergy or other ‘abuse’, that you are unable to absorb nutrition your body has little chance of accessing the nutrients it needs to repair its own systems - and disperse cancerous tumours. At the clinic they experimented with suspending nutrients in liquids and emulsions and pureeing foods so that the nutrients would be more easily absorbed and accessible to the body.

Move to the UK and Mycopryl
In the late 1970s John and Sharon moved to the UK where John continued to practice as a naturopath while working on a lactase enzyme for lactose intolerants like himself. But although the enzyme worked, the business model did not and John turned his attention to marketing the first fermented, pharmaceutical grade GLA (Gamma Linolenic Acid) made by Sturge Biochemicals. Although the factory making the GLA was closed down only 18 months later it had given John the opportunity to research and develop products of his own, the first of which, Mycopryl, was launched in 1988.

The information on Mycopryl in BioCare’s practitioner catalogue - and the fact that the product is still available 16 years later - says much about the company’s approach, and their primary interest in delivering nutrients to the gut in a form in which they will be of some use.

‘ Caprylic acid is a short chain fatty acid found in human breast milk and coconuts that has been found to establish the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Calcium is normally absorbed in the body before it reaches the large intestine. However supplying caprylic acid bound to magnesium and calcium ensure the liberation of the caprylic acid lower down in the large intestine.’

Although John continued to experiment and develop products (Sharon did then, and still does, run the administrative side of the business) BioCare’s real leap forwards came when they joined forces with Sue and Nigel Plummer, micro-biologists with an interest in gut health and the possibilities of probiotics which equalled his own - but who had also just founded the manufacturing company, Cultech.

Sue had worked extensively with probiotics in animals - using them for the successful prevention of diarrhoea in pigs - and was anxious to extend her research to humans. Nigel’s interests lay more in the technology needed to create the absorbability and bio-availability which John was seeking for his products. Nigel had also had experience with freeze-drying, a technique which BioCare now uses extensively.

Move to Wales
While John and Sharon remained in Birmingham, Nigel and Sue took over a factory at Maesteg in the hills outside Swansea (the hills at the bottom of this page in fact) and installed the largest pharmaceutical freeze-drying plant in the UK. As the business expanded, Sue got her own research laboratories in Swansea and 5 years ago the Maesteg factory was turned over entirely to freeze drying and emulsifying nutritional oils. The main manufacture was moved into a large (but already outgrown) unit in Port Talbot. Here 60 workers weigh, mix, sort, encapsulate and tablet over 350 products which are then despatched in bulk to King’s Norton for distribution.

Practitioner Focus
Because of the nature of the Stirlings’ and the Plummers’ own interests BioCare products were designed for - and are still used - primarily by practitioners seeking to deliver very special nutrients to very compromised patients. Although BioCare products are now available in some health foods stores and pharmacies, and they have a large mail order customer base, practitioners remain their core market - and one with whom Biocare work closely.

They run weekly seminars for practitioners both in London and in Birmingham on topics which include Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Weight and Immunity, Digestion and Liver Support or Musculo Skeletal and Connective Tissue. Obviously these seminars are designed not only to discuss the condition but to explain the BioCare products and how they can be used for these conditions. But BioCare also use this contact with practitioners to remain in touch with their needs and seek ideas for yet more new products.

New Product Development
New product development is at the heart of what BioCare is all about. While many other supplement companies merely import and re-pack a relatively narrow range of nutrients, BioCare’s primary interest is in developing not only new products but new ways of delivering those products. This means that there is a constant stream of new launches, each carefully tailored to deliver a slightly different nutrient in a yet more bio- available way. But, since each is indeed new either in concept or in delivery, they are reluctant to de-list older products which are still performing a useful role. Whenever they do so they are deluged by complaints from long term, happy users - so, they don’t! Fortunately their plant in Port Talbot is sufficiently flexible to be able to handle very small as well as quite large runs. So the range keeps growing, Robert Joy, their marketing director tears his hair out - and customers remain happy.

Research and Probiotics
BioCare/Cultech are among the very few supplement companies to run their own dedicated research laboratory. Sue Plummer has 9 researchers working in her laboratory in Swansea and several ongoing trials and programmes with hospitals in Swansea and further afield.

The main focus of her research - and BioCare’s research interest - remains probiotics. The thinking behind probiotic therapy is preventative, not curative. For example, giving pigs with diarrhoea pro-biotics will not cure them. But give new born piglets probiotics before they come into contact with harmful pathogens and you prevent them getting diarrhoea.

The logical progression from this is to ask whether you can use probiotics to help with immune support, the repair of damaged guts (as in IBS or IBD) or to preserve gut integrity.
For example, would they help preserve gut integrity for patients in intensive care (often ingesting massive quantities of drugs) or patients being tube fed? What about the elderly where gut function may be impaired by age, poor nutrition and heavy anti-biotic use as well as specific digestive problems? In a trial carried out at Addenbrookes Hospital last year they found that although probiotics will not prevent the establishment of Clostridium Difficile, a common complication of anti-biotic therapy among the elderly, they dramatically reduced the resulting incidence of diarrhoea.

Another trial, about to start, will assess how effective probiotics might be if given from birth to protect children from developing eczema and/or asthma.

Pro/Antibiotic Combination
Sue and her team have also been working on using probiotic therapy in conjunction with anti-biotics. Although many of the ‘good’ bacteria delivered by the probiotic will be destroyed by the antibiotic, it seems that enough may remain to’carpet’ the gut thus providing some protection against re-infection. Further work which is currently awaiting publication suggests that using probiotics in conjunction with anti-biotics might prevent the build up of anti-biotic resistance. Yet another current trial is looking to see whether probiotics could have a role to play in reducing the incidence of MRSA.

But however positive and exciting all this may sound, getting clinical trials which will establish the credentials of probiotics to the satisfaction of the main- stream medical world is incredibly difficult. As Sue says, in financial terms, BioCare is a minnow swimming amongst the whales of the pharmaceutical companies.

Freeze Dried Versus Live
The huge growth in the number of ‘live’ probiotic drinks has hotted up the argument over which delivers more organisms to the gut, ‘fresh’ or freeze dried probiotics - and which organisms are actually worth delivering.

Of the many probiotic organisms on offer, lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria are the two species that predominate in the human gut. Most probiotic research has concentrated on these organisms and their benefits to human health. It is however very important that the strains of Acidophilus and Bifidobacteria are genuine human derived strains. Sue Plummer feels that only a human specific organism can really be expected to benefit a human so a great deal of her research has focused on isolating and identifiying strains she wished to use in BioCare probiotics.This also involves finding strains that are able to survive their passage through the hostile environment of the stomach and arrive intact where they are needed in the intestine.

BioCare’s latest bit of technical wizardry, the Duo-Cap, has encapsulated a capsule of freeze dried acidopholus and bifidobacteria inside a second capsule filled with plant oils. The outside capsule dissolves in the stomach releasing the beneficial oils. The inside one travels on down to the small intestine where it releases the probiotic bacteria.

Technical Wizardry - Freeze Drying
Technical wizardry in the manufacturing department is Nigel Plummer’s speciality at both the Maesteg and Port Talbot plants.
His original interest was in freeze drying - what Nestle do to millions of tons of coffee every year. The process exploits the fact that ice can ‘sublime’ or pass straight from frozen ice to vapour without melting back into water. This vapour can then be ‘sucked out’ leaving the product almost completely dry.

For example, if you freeze dried an apple you would be left with what looked exactly like an apple and still contained all the nutrients of an apple, but if you touched it it would crumble into powder. Although it is a relatively slow and expensive process freeze drying combines the preservative qualities of freezing and drying with the added advantage that the freeze dried product crumbles into a very manageable powder. BioCare use the process not only for their probiotcs but for herbs, garlic, and any other fruits or vegetables they might wish to use in their products.

Organic minerals
Minerals, as we all know, come from rocks but in the ‘natural’ rock form are almost impossible for humans to absorb. ‘Chelating’ or attaching the mineral to an amino acid can improve absorption up to 50% but BioCare use another method.

If you ‘react’ (very gently agitate in cold water over several days) the in-organic mineral in water with organic acids such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), the metallic particle in the mineral will break away and attach itself to the ascorbic acid. If you then freeze dry the remaining liquid, you get a freeze dried mineral attached to Vitamin C. Recognising this as very absorbable Vitamin C the body will also absorb up to 90% of the attached mineral.

Omega 3 & Fish Oils
Fish oils are widely recognised as the best source of the Omega 3 fatty acids so lacking in many modern diets, but getting patients to take them has always been a problem because of their taste. However, using fish oil concentrates from unpolluted South Pacific anchovies BioCare use the equivalent of a high pressure mixer (very similar to what is used to homogenise milk) to emulsify the fish oil with fruits or fruit oils. In the advertisement below they use orange oil; in their Lipocell oil which we tasted in our oil tasting in July and found quite delicious, they use orange, pineapple, mango and banana. Obviously this not only makes the oils much moreappetising but adds nutritional benefit derived from the fruit, and aids absorption.

Cultech’s factory in Maesteg now only houses the freeze drying, reacting and emulsifiying operations - all long slow processes which take place with only the sheep for company. The Port Talbot plant meanwhile sorts, mixes and encapsulates Biocare’s 350 odd formulations.

The vast majority of these come in capsules made from inert vegetable cellulose although a couple of products come as tablets. They also make a range of liquid supplements (Vitasorb) for those with compromised digestive systems and allergies.
The only non active ingredient in either tablets or capsules is 1/2-1% of magnesium stearate (a synthetically prepared naturally occurring fatty acid from vegetable oil) to help the powders flow and prevent tablets sticking in the throat. No lactose, sugars, modified starch or other potentially allergenic ingredients. Colours, where used, have nutritional benefits - bilberry, turmeric, chlorophyll etc. Sustained release tablets include a lot of vegetable cellulose which takes a long time to break down in the system thus delaying release of the active ingredient.

Customer support
Although practitioners still remain the core of BioCare’s business they do have a team of nutritionists at King’s Norton able to guide consumers through their products and to answer most questions. The Stirlings have even been known to put together specific formulations for especially difficult cases - although it is rare to find a need for which they do not already cater!

For more information and advice call 0121 433 3727 or check out

Click here for more articles

Click here for LINKS to manufacturers of nutrition and food supplements.

First Published in 2004

Back to top