Seaweed extract found to have promising effects in brain cancer treatment

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By Milthon Lujan

A compound found in brown seaweeds could help to treat one of the most common and aggressive forms of malignant brain tumour.

The compound’s promising effects were discovered by researchers in the EU-funded project GENIALG (GENetic diversity exploitation for Innovative macro-ALGal biorefinery). The fucoxanthin compound is a type of carotenoid pigment found in brown seaweeds, such as Saccharina latissima. Also known as sugar kelp, the seaweed is cultivated in Europe and is available commercially. Fucoxanthin is a bioactive compound previously found to have numerous health benefits including antioxidant, anticancer and anti-obesity effects.

GENIALG project partners IOTA Pharmaceuticals, a UK-based oncology SME, and the University of York (UK) collaborated with the University of Cambridge (UK) to further our knowledge of fucoxanthin in this multi-million euro project.

Dr David Bailey, Director of IOTA Pharmaceuticals explained “We found that fucoxanthin not only inhibits cancer cell growth by itself, but also improves the effectiveness of certain (antiproliferative) pharmaceutical drugs. This means that treatment of human brain cancer cells with a combination of pharmaceutical drugs and a natural product extracted from seaweed could provide a new, more effective treatment option in targeting this challenging disease in certain contexts”.

The compound could provide an effective treatment against glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the most common and aggressive form of malignant brain tumour, with an annual incidence of three to four cases per 100,000 people in Europe. Even though knowledge of its genetic causes is improving, it remains an incurable disease, with patients having an average survival rate of 12 months after diagnosis. Part of the poor prognosis is due to tumour heterogeneity: different parts of the tumour have different characteristics, so tend to respond differently to treatment. As a result, a single treatment may kill some of the cancerous cells, while others continue to grow. Therefore, it is important to find and develop combination therapies that can tackle all parts of the tumour.

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IOTA Pharmaceuticals specialises in GBM drug discovery, using novel tools and technologies to address this challenging disease. Within the GENIALG project, IOTA Pharmaceuticals are studying the possible pharmaceutical application of natural products from brown seaweed as anticancer agents. Recent results have now been published in PLOS ONE.

Dr Bailey further explained: “We have observed that not all pharmaceutical drug and natural product combinations are synergistic, possibly due to cell-specific mechanisms. This observation supports the idea that specific drug and natural product combinations might be more effective in certain disease contexts. Interestingly, we have also observed that fucoxanthin appears much more effective as an anticancer agent than other carotenoids, suggesting that there are structural features of fucoxanthin beyond its carotenoid nature that are important for its therapeutic effects. Exactly what these are remains to be determined.”

Brown seaweed is one of the target species in GENIALG, an industry-driven project focusing on seaweed, or “macroalgae”, as a valuable source of diverse bioactive compounds that have great potential to be used in pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and functional foods. Pioneering companies in large-scale integrated European biorefineries and experts in seaweed cultivation, genetics and metabolomics are working closely together to boost the seaweed industry in Europe.

All GENIALG results and ongoing work, including that on fucoxanthin, will be presented at the GENIALG Final Conference, which will be held online on Monday 30 November 2020. 

This is a free event and open to all interested participants. Please register here before Sunday 29 November 2020. For more project details and updates please visit the GENIALG website

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Publication Reference (open access):
Pruteanu, L.-L., Kopanitsa, L., Módos, D., Kletnieks, E., Samarova, E., Bender, A., Gomez, L. D., & Bailey, D. S. (2020). Transcriptomics predicts compound synergy in drug and natural product treated glioblastoma cells. PLOS ONE, 15(9), e0239551. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239551 

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