Treating arthritis with algae

August 23, 2017 by Dr. Michael Hagmann
The new approach to treating arthritis is based on brown algae. Credit: istockphoto / Empa

Researchers at ETH Zurich, Empa and the Norwegian research institute SINTEF are pursuing a new approach to treating arthritis. This is based on a polysaccharide, a long-chain sugar molecule, originating from brown algae. When chemically modified, this "alginate" reduces oxidative stress, has an anti-inflammatory effect in cell culture tests and suppresses the immune reaction against cartilage cells, thereby combating the causes of arthritis. The research is, however, still in its infancy.

Arthritis is the most-widespread joint disease, with around 90 percent of all people over 65 being affected to varying degrees, but this degenerative disease is also widespread amongst younger people. In , the cartilage in the joint, a type of 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 of the disease, bones are no longer adequately protected and can directly rub against each other.

Arthritis can affect all joints in the body, but most often affects the knee joint, hip joint and fingers. The disease has been considered incurable until now. Current treatment methods, such as anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers, mainly address the symptoms. Often, the only remaining option is an operation to replace the affected joint with an artificial one.

Initial research results are encouraging

In laboratory tests, the team led by ETHZ researcher Marcy Zenobi-Wong and Empa researcher Katharina Maniura has now succeeded, together with SINTEF in Norway, in identifying a substance with the potential to halt cartilage degeneration in joints. This substance is the polysaccharide alginate extracted from the stems of - or more precisely cuvie (Lat. Laminaria hyperborea), which is similar to specific extracellular biomolecules in cartilage. The researchers chemically modified the alginate with sulfate groups and then added it in dissolved form to cell cultures to examine the reaction of various cell types to the modified polysaccharide. This revealed that alginate sulfate can significantly reduce , which is a frequent cause of cell damage or even cell death, and the more sulfate groups attached to the alginate molecule, the greater this reduction.

Cell tests in Empa laboratory. Credit: Empa

Alginate sulfate was also able to suppress the inflammatory reaction, again depending on the number of sulfate groups, and was able to down-regulate the expression of genes that trigger an inflammatory reaction in both human , known as chondrocytes, and in macrophages, the "scavenger " of our immune system. The algal molecules should therefore slow down degeneration. "The hope is that they can even stop this degeneration," says Empa researcher Markus Rottmar.

Further research work necessary

The alginate sulfates have so far only been tested in vitro, i.e. in the laboratory with cell cultures. However, the encouraging results mean that research will now continue. The next stage is to test the substances on animals. If this is also successful, clinical trials can then be conducted on people. These tests are, however, laborious and time-consuming. If everything were to work perfectly, it would still be a few years before arthritis patients could be treated with alginate sulfate.

Explore further: Prolactin reduces arthritis inflammation

More information: Anne Kerschenmeyer et al. Anti-oxidant and immune-modulatory properties of sulfated alginate derivatives on human chondrocytes and macrophages, Biomater. Sci. (2017). DOI: 10.1039/c7bm00341b

Related Stories

Prolactin reduces arthritis inflammation

August 1, 2013
Inflammatory joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis are the result of cartilage damage and loss. Chondrocytes are the only cells that are found in cartilage and their death is linked to decreased cartilage health.

Can stem cells help those with arthritis?

April 28, 2013
Stems cells taken from just a few grams of body fat are a promising weapon against the crippling effects of osteoarthritis.

Stem cells edited to fight arthritis: Goal is vaccine that targets inflammation in joints

April 27, 2017
Using new gene-editing technology, researchers have rewired mouse stem cells to fight inflammation caused by arthritis and other chronic conditions. Such stem cells, known as SMART cells (Stem cells Modified for Autonomous ...

Fibroblasts could provide new target for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

November 23, 2016
A study led by researchers at the University of Birmingham reveals the key role of different types of fibroblast cells in the development of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), opening up a new avenue for research into treatment of ...

Weight loss can slow down knee joint degeneration

May 2, 2017
Overweight and obese people who lost a substantial amount of weight over a 48-month period showed significantly lower degeneration of their knee cartilage, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.

Key stem cells for repairing knee joints identified

May 16, 2017
Stem cells that seem key for maintaining and repairing the body's knee joints have been identified by scientists.

Recommended for you

Improving the recognition of anxiety and depression in rheumatoid arthritis

August 28, 2017
A study conducted by Keele University shows that patients with rheumatoid arthritis who are also suffering with anxiety or depression may avoid talking to their GP about their mental health symptoms.

How you think about your arthritis makes a difference

August 24, 2017
(HealthDay)—How well you cope with knee arthritis depends a lot on your mental outlook, a new study suggests.

Treating arthritis with algae

August 23, 2017
Researchers at ETH Zurich, Empa and the Norwegian research institute SINTEF are pursuing a new approach to treating arthritis. This is based on a polysaccharide, a long-chain sugar molecule, originating from brown algae. ...

Study shows prevalence of knee osteoarthritis has doubled since World War II

August 14, 2017
The average American today is twice as likely to be diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis than in the years before World War II, Harvard scientists say, but that increase can't be blamed on the reasons most might think.

Researchers find arthritis drug could treat blood cancer patients

August 3, 2017
Blood cancer sufferers could be treated with a simple arthritis drug, scientists at the University of Sheffield have discovered.

Fluid in the knee holds clues for why osteoarthritis is more common in females

June 26, 2017
Researchers have more evidence that males and females are different, this time in the fluid that helps protect the cartilage in their knee joints.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.