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Algae against cancer

April 27, 2012

In addition to being nutritious and tasty, algae are increasingly used in cosmetics and may even help fight cancer. Biologists from northern Germany use the domestic brown algae for their research.

man holding up brown algae on boat
Image: Frank Hajasch

Biologists from the northern German city of Kiel get their research material from the Baltic Sea. With a special boat designed for harvesting aquacultures, they set out on a regular basis to collect brown algae - Saccharina latissima by its Latin name.

"It can get up to a few meters in length and half a meter across," marine biologist Verena Sandow said. "When it's reached a shimmering, deep golden brown color and it's free of other algae and organisms, it's ideal for us."

The plants grow two to three meters below the water's surface. Researchers wove a dense web of ropes for their algae farm, which serves as a docking station for baby algae.

"Nothing much happens during the winter months, but starting in about March we see a growth spurt," Sandow explained, adding that once the water temperature goes up to 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit), the algae are ready to be picked and stored in large white boxes on the boat.

Back in the laboratory, the algae are frozen then pureed.

"We add a special type of solvent to get the ingredients that we need for our research," biotechnology expert Marion Zenthoefer explained.

Algae contain a lot of polyphenols, carotenoids, polysaccharide sulfates, omega 3 acids and anthocyanine. "Once we've got those, we take it to the lab."

Next, the researcher tests how effective the algae extracts are in sterile conditions. Using a special dish, Zenthoefer spreads specially bred pancreatic cancer cells. Twenty-four hours later, she adds a solution containing algae extract. Another 72 hours after that, Zenthoefer should be able to tell if the cancerous cells have stopped breeding.

Algae destroy cancer cells

"If the cells grow normally, they will have spread all across the surface of the dish. But if there are holes, it's a sign that the algae extract is working," she said, adding that the extracts have been working more and more.For more precise results, she uses an ultraviolet spectrometer.

Cancerous pancreas cells being counted
Tests have shown algae can stop cancer cells from growingImage: Frank Hajasch

"Cells that are still alive, will show up orange after they've been treated with algae extract," Zenthoefer said.

The spectrometer measures optical density, or the absorption of light on a particular frequency.

"Readings around 0.2 percent mean the cells are dead cancer cells, readings around the 2 percent mark means they are still alive," she said.

Although Zenthoefer said preliminary results show a lot of promise, she also pointed out that no one knows which ingredients in particular stop the cancer cells from growing. She said she and her colleagues intend to find that out next.

Domestic algae as good as exotic relatives

Marine biologist Levent Piker said progress has been made because of persistent and intense research. He also said that the use of domestic brown algae from the Baltic Sea represented a change cancer research.

"Until recently, we always looked to exotic locations near hot springs, and we also looked much deeper down," Piker said. "But we've found that our domestic plants from the Baltic Sea are just as potent."

The project "Algae against cancer" is supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Two teams from Kiel University as well as private partners contribute to the project.

Author: Frank Hajasch / ng
Editor: Sean Sinico

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