A team of scientists from Israel and Iceland have published research showing that an extract of spirulina algae has the potential to reduce the chances of COVID-19 patients developing a serious case of the disease.
The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Biotechnology, found that an extract of photosynthetically manipulated Spirulina is 70% effective in inhibiting the release of the cytokine TNF-a, a small signaling protein used by the immune system.
The research was conducted in a MIGAL laboratory in northern Israel with algae grown and cultivated by the Israeli company VAXA, which is located in Iceland. VAXA received funding from the European Union to explore and develop natural treatments for coronavirus.
Iceland’s MATIS Research Institute also participated in the study.
In a small percentage of patients, infection with the coronavirus causes the immune system to release an excessive number of TNF-a cytokines, resulting in what is known as a cytokine storm. The storm causes acute respiratory distress syndrome and damage to other organs, the leading cause of death in COVID-19 patients.
“If you control or are able to mitigate the excessive release of TNF-a, you can eventually reduce mortality,” said Asaf Tzachor, a researcher from the IDC Herzliya School of Sustainability and the lead author of the study.
During cultivation, growth conditions were adjusted to control the algae’s metabolomic profile and bioactive molecules. The result is what Tzachor refers to as “enhanced” algae.
Tzachor said that despite the special growth mechanism, the algae are a completely natural substance and should not produce any side effects. Spirulina is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a dietary substance. It is administrated orally in liquid drops.
“This is natural, so it is unlikely that we would see an adverse or harmful response in patients as you sometimes see in patients that are treated with chemical or synthetic drugs,” he said.
The algae have been shown to reduce inflammation. Tzachor said that if proven effective, spirulina could also be used against other coronaviruses and influenza.
The flu also induces a cytokine storm.
“If we succeed in the next steps,” said Dr. Dorit Avni, director of the laboratory at MIGAL, “there is a range of diseases that can be treated using this innovative solution – as a preventative treatment or a supportive treatment.”
Moreover, because it is a treatment against the effect of the virus on the body, its impact should not be affected by virus mutations.
“In this study, it was exciting to discover such activity in algae that was grown under controlled conditions, using sustainable aquaculture methods,” said MATIS’s Dr. Sophie Jensen. “Although active ingredients have not yet been identified with absolute certainty, the extract opens a space for clinical trials that offer a variety of anti-inflammatory treatments, for COVID-19 and beyond.”
Tzachor said that the team now hopes to run human clinical trials.
“If clinical trials confirm the efficacy of our suggested therapy at the rates reported, the substance can become available to the general population,” he said.
“We hope this research would urge the communities of regulators and investors and pharma companies to invest more resources and give more attention to natural-based therapies. The potential is unbelievable.”