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Manufacturing stories

Seaweed in brain breakthrough

Edition 189_Williams

Seaweed extracts produced by Tasmanian biopharmaceutical company Marinova are proving effective in the treatment of traumatic brain injury.

Researchers at Melbourne’s RMIT University and the Australian National University in Canberra are investigating the effects of the anti-inflammatory extracts.

The researchers have combined fucoidan — a naturally occurring sugar molecule found in seaweed — with proteins to prevent scarring of brain tissue and promote healing.

“We used fragments of proteins to form an artificial hydrogel that the body recognises as healthy tissue. We then decorated this web with the sugars found in the seaweed to create the anti-inflammatory system,” co-researcher Dr Richard Williams from RMIT University said.

“The seaweed stops the scar and the scaffold lets the cells grow.”

When the "scaffold" was introduced into a damaged brain, scarring that hinders healing was significantly reduced.

Seven days after the application, new cells had grown, according to a study published in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.

The findings, also published in Nature Scientific Reports, show that a brain is likely to regrow when injected with the hydrogel, radically modifying how it reacts to injury, according to co-author David Nisbet from ANU.

“For the first time ever we have shown that we can engineer a tissue construct that allows regrowth in damaged brain tissue, increasing the potential for repair and regeneration,” Associate Professor Nisbet said.

The researchers are now exploring how the treatment can be used with other technologies, including 3D bio-printed implants, to replace damaged muscle, nerves, and bones.

Throughout human history people have eaten seaweed. Worldwide, it is the basis of a $7.5 billion industry and in Tasmania it is used for food, health products and fertilisers, supporting a multi-million dollar a year industry with 80 licence holders.

The Tasmanian Government is working on a marine plant management plan to identify key harvest areas and create electronic data systems that will guide industry growth.

Marinova is one of the most successful players in the existing industry.

It develops and manufactures high-purity fucoidan extracts for use in pharmaceutical, nutritional and dermatological applications.

Fucoidan, a bioactive polysaccharide found in brown seaweed, can be used in a range of pharmaceutical and nutraceutical applications.

According to Marinova these include immune modulation, gut health, anti-inflammation, anti-aging, viral inhibition and even tumour suppression.

Marinova’s world-class extraction facilities and research laboratories at Cambridge have earned it ISO9001 and HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) and Good Manufacturing Practice accreditations.

The company is the world’s only producer of certified organic fucoidan.

It exports fucoidan to research institutions and nutraceutical and pharmaceutical companies in more than 25 countries.

King Island’s Kelp Industries is another mature, export-based seaweed business, built on drying kelp collected from the seashore to supply overseas processors who extract a palette of compounds with many industrial uses.

NatraSol, which has a valuable supply agreement with national chain Bunnings, and Marrawah Gold both market seaweed-based garden fertilisers.

Seaweed scientist Craig Sanderson runs Tasmanian Sea Vegetables with James Ashmore, selling an introduced invasive seaweed undaria (marketed under its Japanese name as wakame) to health food shops and restaurants.

Dr Sanderson believes the local seaweed industry could be much bigger.

“Tasmania’s the best place to harvest seaweed because the cooler waters generate a greater biomass of seaweed, and there are lots of varieties down here and Tasmania obviously has got the clean, green image,” he said.

“There is the potential for a significant industry, possibly as big as the salmon industry.”

Mr Ashmore, of Ashmore Seafoods, said: “Tasmanian seaweed has a good reputation, but the market has been slow to take off.

“We've been working with chefs tirelessly to get it on to their menus, but it’s early stages yet.

“We've got wonderful plants in wonderful clean waters, we don’t have a nuclear plant down the road … it’s just a matter of educating.”

Dr Sanderson said the company could not keep up with demand for wakame, but there were restrictions in terms of harvesting native species.

“If local species were opened up a bit more through harvest or culture it would enable us to expand,” he said.

Salmon grower Tassal is trialling seaweed cultivation at its new operation in Okehampton Bay.

Image courtesy of RMIT

5 November 2017, Edition 189

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