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Nr. 92, 21.10.2017  voriger  Übersicht  weiter

Brown algae with potential

Seaweed, bladder wrack, knotted wrack – the Baltic Sea conceals innumerable brown algae species. Their health implications are being systematically researched in a German-Danish research project.


Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) is a brown algae that is widespread in the Baltic Sea. The aim is to utilise its constituents for medicinal purposes. Foto: Marion Zenthoefer/CRM

Professor Alexa Klettner is convinced of the value of brown algae for health. As an example, she cites Japan's population, who lead the world in terms of life expectancy and state of health. It has not yet been proven that this is the result of a fish- and algae-rich diet. However, what is uncontested is that algae contains valuable ingredients.

“This is a treasure floating just off the coast,” says the head of the eye clinic's research laboratory at Kiel University. However, to date, it has been a little-noted treasure. At least the wellness industry, with its marine cosmetics and thalassotherapy, has relied for some time on the effects of algae, which contains a wide range of further bioactive constituents in addition to proteins, vitamins and minerals; and algae is even gradually conquering the supermarket shelves. Special attention is being paid to the fucoidans, extracted from brown algae.

“Fucoidans display a variety of properties that make them interesting as possible therapeutic agents for various illnesses, for example in ophthalmology or tissue engineering. However, as a group of natural compounds, they are highly heterogeneous.” This heterogeneity is the starting point for the German-Danish project “FucoSan – Health from the Sea”, under the leadership of Alexa Klettner. “We aim to characterise the different fucoidans and catalogue their biological activity, so that it is then possible to say which extract may be suitable for a given application.”

One of these possible applications, for example, is the treatment of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a widespread eye disease in Germany. Up to now, it was only possible to slow the advance of the disease using what are known as VEGF inhibitors. “By coincidence, we discovered that fucoidan is also capable of lowering the VEGF level in eye cells,” Klettner reports.

Based on this, and in cooperation with Professor Sabine Fuchs of the Department of Trauma Surgery, she has achieved some results of interest for medical applications using fucoidans. To study these properties in more detail, they initiated the FucoSan project, together with Professor Susanne Alban from Kiel University's Institute of Pharmacy and Dr Levent Piker from Kiel's Coastal Research & Management company. It is funded by the European Union as an InterReg-5a project until February 2020. Also involved are the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, the oceanBASIS company and Danish partners from the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Southern Denmark and Odense University Hospital.

“Because fucoidans are extracted from algae, the properties and effects can be different depending on the algae species and where it grew,” says Klettner. Different types of algae from different regions, harvested at different times, are therefore investigated and characterised. This will subsequently allow the most suitable ingredients for numerous applications to be precisely identified.

To achieve this, the algae extracts are first characterised in terms of their chemical properties and their biological activity is then investigated. The effects of fucoidans are sweeping and range from antioxidant properties, through to the ability to influence angiogenesis, and on to a possible impact on the immune system.

“For example, we are looking at whether the extract protects against oxidative stress in cell culture, whether it is anti-inflammatory and whether the function of my cells is retained,” explains the AMD expert, Klettner. 'Her cells' refer to the retinal pigment epithelium. This outermost layer of the retina is important in the nutrient supply to the photoreceptors; damage to the pigment epithelium is associated with the eye disease AMD. Professor Sabine Fuchs and her partners at Odense University Hospital in Denmark are interested in the functions of the fucoidans with regard to tissue regeneration, and Professor Susanne Alban is investigating the immunological effects of the algae extracts.

“The special feature of our interdisciplinary project is that, on the one hand, we bring together project partners from science, health care providers and the regional economy around one table. On the other hand, we are demonstrating how well cross-border collaboration can work in Europe,” emphases the Kiel project leader.

Kerstin Nees
Health from the sea
As a cross-border InterReg 5a project, the FucoSan project is funded by the European Union (Interreg Germany-Denmark and the European Fund for Regional Development) with a total of 2.2 million Euros until February 2020. The aim is to map out the constituents in brown algae and their properties in terms of future commercialisation and exploitation in medicine and cosmetics. A database will be established for this purpose, containing descriptions of up to 60 active brown algae ingredients and their properties.

In addition to the Department of Opthalmology and the Departments of Orthopaedics and Trauma Surgery at the UKSH, Campus Kiel, Kiel University's Institute of Pharmacy, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, the Technical University of Denmark (DTU, Denmark), the University of Southern Denmark (SDU, Denmark) and Odense University Hospital (OUH, Denmark) are all involved.

The Institute for Innovation Research at Kiel University and the Mads Clausen Institute at SDU support the research group in terms of subsequent economic exploitation of the insights gained. In addition, project partners include oceanBASIS, a company specialising in marine biotechnology and marketing their own natural cosmetics brand, and the Kiel company Coastal Research & Management, responsible for supplying and cultivating the algae.
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