BIOTECH'S FORMULA FOR SUCCESS Martek makes pitch to boost babies' IQ


Give $50 to Henry "Pete" Linsert Jr. and he will make your baby smarter.

Sound like the pitch of a snake oil salesman? Some people think so.

But if it's not, and Mr. Linsert is right, the eager 50-year-old former venture capitalist could be the chairman of a very big company some day.

Mr. Linsert, president of a Columbia biotechnology company, Martek Corp., is promoting an ingredient -- Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA -- that he thinks can make a difference in a child's intelligence when added to infant formula.

After battling the skepticism of infant formula companies for a year, Martek's claim no longer seems so far-fetched.

The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, published a study two weeks ago showing that babies who were breast-fed scored significantly higher on IQ tests.

"This was a shot out of the blue for us," said Mr. Linsert, who teamed up with Martin Marietta Corp. scientists in 1985 to form Martek. "We think there will be a whole perception change in the market" because of the study, he said.

The Lancet study was conducted by Dr. Alan Lucas, a researcher and head of infant and child nutrition at the Medical Research Council's Dunn Nutrition Unit in Cambridge, England. Tracking premature infants who were fed either mother's milk or formula through tubes during the hospital stay after birth, Dr. Lucas tested the same children at age 8.

The IQ scores of those who were breast-fed averaged eight points higher, after adjustments for social and educational factors.

Dr. Lucas said the study was not conclusive. "We don't have enough proof to cause anxiety to many women who are bottle-feeding," he said. However, he acknowledged that "scientists are taking this very seriously."

The study is one of many that point to the same conclusion, said Dr. Frank A. Oski, a pediatrician and director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children's Center. "I think it is a given that there is something in mother's milk that increases cognitive development."

But Dr. Oski said he has "no idea" what that "something" is. It could be several separate substances or "perhaps things acting in concert," he said.

Dr. Lewis A. Barness, a pediatrician who specializes in infant nutrition, once tried to count all of the ingredients in breast milk that didn't appear in formulas. "I stopped when I got to 400," he said.

The question for Martek is whether the DHA it has produce from micro-algae is the missing key.

Dr. Oski doesn't think so. "It is so naive to think that it is the magic bullet," he said. But Dr. Barness, a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin, said animal research has linked DHA to brain and eye development.

Dr. Lucas agrees. "In the next few years, we are likely to see inclusion of the long-chain fats [of which DHA is one] into infant formula," he said, adding that the Martek work might be "a legitimate and important area to investigate."

But much more scientific research needs to be done to prove the connection between DHA and intelligence, to perfect the recipe of fatty acids that should be added to a baby's formula and to ensure that the product made from micro-algae is pure, he said.

At Martek, a privately-held company with sales of less than $1 million last year, scientists think they know the answer to the DHA riddle.

Mr. Linsert held up a pint jar of red liquid -- a combination of DHA and arachidonic acid -- that is essentially a fatty acid abundant in the brain and retina. A couple of drops in infant formula is all that is needed, he said.

The mixture, called Formulaid, is produced from a kind of micro-algae, one of the 70,000 that occur naturally. Martek has made this unexplored kingdom of plants its specialty, working on the assumption that the micro-algae can produce substances that would be valuable in many uses. It is betting it can capitalize on the qualities of micro-algae to produce research chemicals, tools to diagnose medical ailments and new drugs such as antibiotics.

The company has applied for patents in the United States and Europe and is negotiating with the dozen or so makers of infant formula. It hopes to conclude those talks in the next few months.

Mr. Linsert also is considering selling company stock to the public to increase operating capital.

He thinks the additive could be on the market within a couple of years.

Mr. Linsert's dream is that mothers will walk into grocery stores and, wanting the best for their children, will be eager to spend an additional 10 cents a can -- about $50 over the typical eight months of formula feeding -- for the brand that contains Martek's Formulaid.

"It would put us in the top biotech companies in the United States," Mr.Linsert said.

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