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Algae: a natural source of pain relief

Photo of seaweed

Molecules within algae are being used to develop functional foods and medication to relieve pain and inflammation.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a serious disease that causes prolonged inflammation and damage to the human digestive tract. The term is usually used to describe Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – both of which, if left untreated, can result in permanent damage. More than six million people suffer from IBD globally; it can be very painful and disruptive, and in some cases may even be life threatening. The exact cause of the disease remains a mystery, and there is currently no cure.

As part of the European Union Horizon 2020 Algae4IBD project, researchers at Teagasc are exploring ways to identify and develop a set of novel small molecules derived from seaweeds and microalgae that can provide relief for sufferers of IBD. The project involves research institutes with experience in the harvest and aquaculture of seaweeds and microalgae, as well as gastroenterologists, food and functional food product developers and the pharmaceutical industry.

Teagasc’s Maria Hayes, a researcher and coordinator of Irish activities in the Algae4IBD project, says: “The ultimate goal of the project is to develop nutraceuticals and drugs that can treat IBD and potentially prevent it, in order to support the wellbeing of sufferers.” 

Enzymes and inflammation

Inflammation is a form of protection for the human body, existing to help fight infection, disease and injury. However, if left unchecked, it can cause chronic or acute inflammation that results in pain, gastrointestinal issues and fatigue.

Several key enzymes in the human body – including cyclooxygenase enzymes 1 and 2 (COX-1 and COX-2) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL) – play a role in the development of inflammation. These are considered targets that should be inhibited with drugs or functional food ingredients, to prevent inflammation and pain.

“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin are commonly used pain relievers that decrease pain and inflammation by inhibiting COX enzyme activity,” explains Maria. “The problem is, NSAIDs often have negative side effects for the gastrointestinal tract. The reaction caused by inhibiting MAGL activity, however, is known to stimulate natural pain relief within the body.

“The aim of Algae4IBD is to isolate and develop natural inhibitors of these enzymes and formulate them into functional foods for IBD sufferers.”

Why algae?

Although consumed for millennia as a food source in Asia and South and Central America, use of algae in Europe as a food, functional food or drug is largely only just beginning to be explored. The health benefits of small molecules found in seaweeds and microalgae is a relatively new area of biodiscovery for researchers, but marine species of both seaweeds and microalgae have tremendous potential for use as a reservoir of health-beneficial bioactive molecules and food ingredients.

The environment in which they are found lend these plants and microorganisms to develop defence mechanisms that often result in enhanced antimicrobial and antioxidative activities. In Ireland, there are over 600 species of seaweeds found around our coastline. In addition, microalgae can be successfully grown indoors using controlled conditions to optimise production and reduce contamination.

The catalyst for the Algae4IBD project came from the promising results of preliminary studies looking at microalgae. At the Algarve Centre of Marine Sciences in Portugal and the MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in Israel, studies identified the ability of whole microalgae to inhibit inflammatory biomarkers in cell lines. Before that, researchers at Teagasc and biomarine ingredients company Algaia, France, had identified the ability of extracts generated from the native brown seaweed Ascophyllum nodosum to inhibit enzymes key in the prevention of inflammation and pain.

Diving into algae research

Teagasc’s main role within the Algae4IBD project is to generate, extract and screen for anti-inflammatory, anti-pain and prebiotic compounds from extracts generated from both seaweeds and microalgae supplied by partners or generated within Teagasc. This includes characterisation work using mass spectrometry. 

Once active extracts are identified, the formulation of extract ingredients within functional foods will begin. The aim is to develop functional ingredients that IBD sufferers can consume easily, which provide benefits to them by reducing pain and inflammation, and which will be cheaper to purchase than currently available drugs.

So far, Teagasc researchers have identified several extracts with prebiotic activities that help to promote the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria species.

“We have identified two potential oligosaccharides (prebiotics that provide food for the good bacteria in the gut) generated at Teagasc from Irish and French seaweeds,” says Maria. “Additionally, we have identified five seaweed and microalgae extracts that have demonstrated significant anti-inflammatory activities and cyclooxygenase and MAGL enzyme-inhibitory activities when assessed in vitro.”

These oligosaccharides and extracts are proceeding to the next stage of the project – screening in mice to observe anti-inflammatory and anti-pain effects.

“There is more work to be done, but I am already excited about the direction this research has taken – it is exciting to know our work could really provide comfort and benefits to those affected by IBD,” Maria concludes. 



Microalgae are expected to become a key protein source in the EU within the next 50 years. 


It is estimated that over 40,000 people in Ireland suffer from IBD.



The project team would like to thank Noel McCarthy (Teagasc) for his contribution to this research.


Algae4IBD is funded by the European Union‘s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 101000501.


[pic credit] Maria Hayes/Teagasc