Scientific serendipity: Curiosity, courage and the culture of innovation

Michael Yatcilla, Ph.D · February 27, 2020 · Short URL:

Serendipity happens when scientists, with the support of a company committed to improving the health

Serendipity is such a fantastic word and phenomenon. It’s “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and history is full of scientifically serendipitous discoveries made while pursuing other outcomes. A few of these well-known research projects have led to life-changing discoveries, including penicillin, x-rays, vulcanized rubber and microwave ovens. While serendipity may create a moment of opportunity, it is curiosity and the courage to explore the opportunity that truly makes innovation possible.

Look at the bookshelf of any scientist or engineer and you will typically see a series of technical textbooks and research handbooks with titles such as “Introduction to Physical Polymer Science,  Second Edition,” “Intermolecular and Surface Forces, Third Edition”, “Fundamentals of Momentum, Heat, and Mass Transfer, Third Edition,” or even “Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook, Sixth Edition”. Do you note what they all have in common?  These books are all constantly evolving and being revised.  Does this mean that the 5th Edition of Perry’s Handbook was wrong?  No, but because we constantly ask the question “why” we are challenging our previous assumptions and improving upon them. As scientists, we learn how to look closer, dig deeper and ask more questions and as a result, we understand the fundamental “why” better than we did before.

At Herbalife Nutrition, we have a tremendous obligation and opportunity to continuously explore new ways to create exceptional products. Even small improvements to our understanding of the products we craft – their composition, the way the ingredients interact with each other and our body chemistry, enable us to improve our products and the experience millions of people have with them around the world, every single day. 

Getting to Why

Companies with their own research and development departments actively seek to improve their natural raw materials extraction and treatment methods. This commitment to search for science and technology-based knowledge is an ally of every forward-looking company that intends to improve and excel day-by-day. The differential way of processing natural ingredients may result in a new component with unique and more beneficial properties. These new properties then need to be evaluated with the scientific method.  A detailed scientific analysis needs to show that a new component is different from the previous one, both in terms of composition as well as potential benefits.

The right tools and evaluation methods are also critical to understanding the “why.”  For instance, the Simulated Human Intestinal Model Environment, or “SHIME”, is an invention of the University of Ghent and was brought to our attention by a company called ProDigest in Belgium. SHIME is, as the name implies, a model of the gastrointestinal tract, where we can measure the effect of everything we eat on many parameters based on the human gut.  Specifically, we use SHIME to look at the number and type of bacteria that live inside the gut. Very simply, we have “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria” living in our gut and the balance between the two and their interactions with our food are important to the health of our gut. 

With the understanding of what makes a healthy gut, we began to research the aloe vera plant with fresh eyes knowing that certain types of aloe have beneficial effects on the microbiome and to help answer the question “why” does aloe make people feel better?

A New Look at an Ancient Plant

Often the serendipitous nature of science is looking at an ingredient from a fresh and unique perspective, which leads to amazing insights. Our research on aloe vera, a plant traditionally used in medicine to heal wounds as well as contribute to bowel and digestive health, led us to new models for wellness usage because we are using new techniques to observe the behavior of aloe vera in various biologically relevant models.

The plant has been used for thousands of years. The first use and consumption records come from Egypt used in pharaohs' funerals as well as in queens’ baths. Cleopatra is said to have loved aloe vera leaf gel, which she used to enhance her beauty. In modern western society, the most widely daily use of aloe gel is to relieve burns. The word aloe is Greek in origin and means “bitter.” This is because it contains a bitter, heavy yellowish substance between the leaf’s outer layer and the inner gel that contains components known as aloins, responsible for a laxative effect. 

Aloe vera is a desert plant that naturally produces a very wide variety of macromolecules.  If you consider what life is like for a water-rich succulent plant like aloe, growing in an environment where it can go months between small amounts of rain, you can see how the environment could force remarkable developments beneficial to the health of the aloe plant.  For a long time, people have known that aloe has benefits to people as well. The most well-known is the topical benefits of fresh aloe vera juice on skin irritation.  Additionally, it was discovered that if you drink raw aloe vera juice, it has a laxative effect.  But if you purify the juice (most simply by pouring it through a charcoal filter), the laxative effect goes away, but digestive benefits remain. 

When aloe vera is processed for the industrial production of aloe juice for oral consumption, the aloins are removed in a process known as decolorization. In the search for perfecting this industrial process, results obtained start to be alternatively viewed, and led to…serendipity.

Serendipity Happens

We started this journey by analyzing aloe vera’s natural components and asking new questions to find innovative solutions. We invested in the manufacturing process of decolorized aloe vera, obtaining a newfound ingredient which was immediately analyzed by our chemists. With the new composition discovered, it was now time to start our searches both in the literature and on our researchers' laboratory bench.  Alliances with first-class technology centers enabled us to discover novel applications for aloe vera.  These discoveries are now being shared with other scientific colleagues outside of Herbalife Nutrition so that this new properties and potential applications extracted from aloe vera become readily available for scientific study. 

What we intended to be another ingredient target from aloe vera became a new way to apply and utilize its benefits. A new world for aloe opened to us, along with the most desired outcome for every scientist: the grant of a patent for invention protection.

Why is a patent important? Simply put, it is an exclusive right granted for an invention by a government. It is protection against third parties using the invention without prior consent from the patent holder. Patent application and validation is a highly complex processes, as an individual or company must prove that all that is under evaluation is unique. The invention needs to meet three main characteristics

  • Useful for industrial application
  • Novelty
  • Non-obvious (the most difficult to prove because in an expert's view, the invention developed should not be evident

Herbalife Nutrition’s patent (10322156) protects the invention of a unique method that our scientists discovered to process the aloe vera leaf in order to obtain a decolorized aloe juice. This method leads to a unique aloe juice composition that has a potential beneficial effect on humans without causing a laxative effect. These benefits are related to healthier composition of microorganisms in the gut and favorable immune responses as was shown by several in vitro tests.

Serendipity happens when scientists, with the support of a company committed to improving the health of consumers, take the time to look at an existing product from a fresh perspective. Herbalife Nutrition is excited to be awarded a patent for our finding and committed to use our technology to introduce innovative functional ingredients, such as aloe-based products, to help people live healthier and happier lives.

Image Description

Michael Yatcilla, Ph.D

Senior Vice President, Worldwide Research & Development at Herbalife

All author posts

Support VatorNews by Donating

Read more from our "Lessons and advice" series

More episodes