Pass the seaweed Apr 10, 2019
Prof. dr. Tim VANMIERLO
A beautiful mind is a terrible thing to go to waste. Over 50 million people across the globe suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. A horrible disease that slowly, but surely, deteriorates our memory and cognitive abilities. Researchers from all over the world are looking for solutions to halt this process. And sometimes breakthroughs are found in the most unexpected places. Today we talk to UHasselt researchers prof. dr. Tim Vanmierlo and dr. Jeroen Bogie who discovered that seaweed might be a solution to counter Alzheimer development.
EAST VERSUS WEST
“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” - Hippocrates.
Every 3 seconds, someone gets diagnosed with Alzheimer. Yet despite its ever-growing impact on our graying society, we are nowhere near a cure yet. One hypothesis is that a disturbed fat metabolism in the brain is involved in the origin and progress of this neurological disease.
“We already know that the memory of mice who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease improves when the transport of cholesterol in our brain is stimulated through the activation of specific receptors LXR α and β, structures located on the inside of brain cells, using synthetic pharmaceuticals”, Tim explains. “However, these pharmaceuticals can’t be used on patients because they bind to both alpha and beta, causing unwanted side-effects like a fatty liver. During my Ph.D., I discovered together with dr. Monique Mulder that plant sterols might offer a solution to this problem. So we wrote a grant together and during my post-doc I went on the hunt for plant sterols that would only activate LXR beta but not alpha, thus avoiding the development of side-effects. And that’s where Jeroen joined in.”
“Indeed, together we went to the ‘land of smiles’, a.k.a. Thailand, to screen native plant extracts from traditional Asian medicine as well as western ones at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok”, Jeroen tells us. “After a week Tim went back and I stayed for an additional six weeks to search for that one plant that could potentially activate the beta receptor. But, to no avail.”
IT'S ALL ABOUT SEAWEED
“We almost gave up on the plant sterols idea when we came across a new paper from a research team from the Ocean University of Qingdao that discovered the presence of the plant sterol we were looking for. More specifically, it was found in a seaweed from the East-Chinese sea called Sargassum fusiforme. So we ordered a large batch on an online web shop and prepared everything for the experiment. It was kind of funny as the people from the secretary thought we were ordering sport supplements”, Tim laughs. “On top of that one of the Ph.D. students who was also working on the project had to grind all the dried seaweed with her coffee mill outside. Luckily, it was summer at the time.”
“First, we validated if the plant sterol was indeed present and could activate the specific receptor using a screening assay, which was the case.” Jeroen tells us. “Then we tested its efficiency using an Alzheimer mice model, where we mixed the seaweed in the food of the animals. The results were surprising. The mice who ate the seaweed had an 80% reduction in the development of Alzheimer plaques and performed better in the cognitive tests when compared to the control group. On top of that, there were no side-effects. These results showcase the amazing potential of plant sterols when it comes to Alzheimer prevention. We are really looking forward to what the future will hold and are excited to explore the mechanisms behind all of this.”
Discover the scientific article here.