Researchers study possibilities of algae extract for arthritis

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published August 28, 2017

Key Takeaways

Polysaccharide alginate, a substance extracted from the stems of brown alga known as cuvie (Laminaria hyperborea) may stop cartilage degeneration in the joints, according recent in vitro studies.

Researchers pointed out that osteoarthritis is the most-widespread joint disease, with approximately 90% of all people over 65 being affected to varying degrees, however this degenerative disease is also widespread amongst younger people. In arthritis, the cartilage in the joint, the protective layer on bones that "lubricates" the joint, degenerates over time. This can be extremely painful for sufferers, because inflammatory reactions are associated with cartilage degeneration. In the later stages, bones are no longer adequately protected and can directly rub against each other.

Although osteoarthritis can affect all joints in the body, it most often affects the knee joint, hip joint, and fingers. This disease had been considered incurable until now. Current treatment methods, such as anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers, mainly address the symptoms. In many cases, the only remaining option is an operation to replace the affected joint with an artificial one.

Researchers from ETH Zurich, a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics university, Zürich, Switzerland; Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, Dübendorf, Switzerland; and SINTEF, the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia, Trondheim, Norway, are studying a polysaccharide originating from brown algae.

This polysaccharide alginate may be similar to specific extracellular biomolecules found in cartilage. By chemically modifying the alginate with sulfate groups and then adding it to cell cultures, they found that the alginate sulfate significantly reduced oxidative stress, a notorious cause of cell damage and death. Furthermore, the more sulfate groups they attached to the alginate molecule, the greater the reduction became.

In addition, depending on the number of attached sulfate groups, the alginate sulfate also down-regulated gene expression that triggered inflammatory reactions in chondrocytes and macrophages. Thus, they concluded, these algal molecules theoretically could slow down the degeneration of cartilage.

"The hope is that they can even stop this degeneration," said Empa researcher Markus Rottmar.

This research is currently in its infancy, but based on these findings, researchers will continue their studies in animals.

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