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Researchers have extracted molecules from prickly pear and brown seaweed to help fight neurodegenerative diseases.

There are now even more reasons to travel to Spain or Italy and take in the Mediterranean Sea.

Researchers from the University of Malta and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique have concluded that chemicals extracted from the prickly pear and brown seaweed, two abundant Mediterranean plants, may be possible drug candidates that can help combat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are characterized by the accumulation of sticky protein clumps that over time damage the nervous system and erode mobility or memory.

Dr. Neville Vassallo, M.D., Ph.D., co-author of the study and professor of molecular physiology at the University of Malta School of Medicine and Surgery, explained how the extracts from these plants can be used to fight diseases.

“We have long been screening plants scattered across the Mediterranean for small molecules that interfere with the build-up of toxic protein aggregates,” Vassallo said in a statement. “The robust effects of chemicals derived from the prickly pear and brown seaweed confirm that our search has certainly not been in vain.”

The research team initially determined the effect of the plant extracts on brewer’s yeast brimming with beta-amyloid clumps, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

The yeast’s health improved dramatically following exposure to the chemicals, which led the team to experiment with the molecules on fruit flies that were genetically modified to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms.

The diseased flies’ lifespan was prolonged an additional two days on regular treatment with seaweed extract and four days when the prickly pear extract was administered. The researchers viewed a day in the life of a fruit fly as comparable to a year in the life of a human.

The flies also showed an 18 percent improvement in mobility after they were given treatment.

The treatment also prolonged the lifespan of the flies with brains overloaded with alpha-synuclein, a gummy protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers discovered that the plant-derived molecules interfered with the build-up of both beta-amyloid and alpha-synuclein proteins to generate clumps that are less toxic to neurons.

Ruben J. Cauchi, Ph.D., a faculty member at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking of the University of Malta, will lead to breakthrough treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

“We believe that the discovery of bioactive agents that target pathways that are hit by multiple neurodegenerative conditions is the most viable approach in our current fight against brain disorders,” Cauchi said in a statement. “A clear advantage of the drugs used in this study is that, in view of their excellent safety profile, they are already on the market as nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals.”

The research team is currently working closely with the Institute of Cellular Pharmacology, the company that extracts the molecules from the plants.

The study was published in Neuroscience Letters.

Study co-authors from the University of Malta were Michelle Briffa, Stephanie Ghio, Johanna Neuner, Alison J. Gauci, Rebecca Cacciottolo and Mario Caruana. Study co-authors from the University of Bordeaux were Christophe Cullin and Christelle Marchal. The research was funded by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, the University of Malta, CNRS and the Embassy of France to Malta.

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