Researchers recruit seaweed in fight against infection

01 February 2014

The disease-fighting qualities of seaweed compounds are being investigated by an international network of scientists including experts from Swansea University, Cardiff University and AlgiPharma AS with trials for new inhalation therapies for cystic fibrosis sufferers already underway.

As part of a four-year programme worth 5.4M, awarded by the Norwegian Research Council, researchers are employing novel approaches to synthesise and test alginate molecules (components of seaweed) to design a new generation of drug compounds capable of improving the effectiveness of antibiotics.

Research conducted by the universities has shown that these seaweed compounds are capable of combating multi-drug resistant infections and can change the physical structure of sputum (phlegm) in diseased patients.

Harnessing this knowledge, scientists have developed a new inhalation therapy that is being tested on cystic fibrosis patients with the aim of improving their breathing the condition affects 10,000 people in the UK alone and leads to sufferers being hospitalised up to three times a year.

The new therapeutic could also be used in other more common respiratory diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which is reported to affect over 1 million sufferers in the UK.

Studies are also paving the way towards improved treatment of chronic non-healing skin wounds and multi-drug resistant infections, such as MRSA. These seaweed compounds are also effective against organisms that cause more benign conditions like gum disease.

Alginates are normal components of seaweed, like laver-bread, and have been used as gelling agents in food and healthcare industries for many years. However, the alginate being studied in this programme of research has never been used before to combat infectious diseases.

Studies of how the alginates improve breathing in COPD and cystic fibrosis are being performed by a team led by Dr Paul Lewis, Associate Professor from the Biomedical Informatics Group at the Institute of Life Sciences, Swansea University, using the supercomputing power of High Performance Computing (HPC) Wales.

The direct effects of these agents on bacteria and sputum are being investigated by Dr Chris Wright, Director of the Multidisciplinary Nanotechnology Centre at Swansea University and Dr Karl Hawkins, Associate Professor at the College of Medicine, Swansea University.

Dr Paul Lewis says, ''We are able to carry out this research using state-of-the art technologies through the Centre for NanoHealth at Swansea University and a partnership with HPC Wales.''

According to Dr Chris Wright, "This is a very rewarding and exciting  collaboration that brings together clinicians, life scientists and engineers to work on  the development and optimisation of these new alginate therapeutics which offer tremendous potential for the future  of health care." 

The research has been principally funded by AlgiPharma AS, a Norwegian biopharmaceutical company, who have in turn received significant project and programme grant funding contributions from the European Union (Eurostars programme); the US Department of Defence; Innovation Norway; Norwegian Research Council; the UK Technology Strategy Board and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of the US.

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