UF researchers dive into the science of how seaweed might prevent colon cancer and inflammation of the digestive tract

Consuming a seaweed found near the Florida Keys may offer health benefits in preventing colon cancer and inflammatory diseases of the digest tract, according to researchers in the University of Florida College of Pharmacy.

A comprehensive multiyear study identified seaweed compounds responsible for anti-inflammatory activities and their mechanism of action. Researchers tested the natural products in multiple cell-based and animal models and found activation of a signaling pathway responsible for fighting off inflammation and resulting digestive diseases. In addition, the seaweed components modified gut microbiota composition, increasing the abundance of bacteria found in probiotics that are beneficial for colon health.

Luesch Seaweed
UF scientists (pictured left to right) Michelle Bousquet, Ph.D., Hendrik Luesch, Ph.D., and Fatma Al-Awadhi, Ph.D., collected seaweed off the coast of Boca Grande Key, an island about 15 miles west of Key West.

“This is an exciting finding because colon inflammation impacts so many health conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and is a potential precursor for colon cancer,” said Hendrik Luesch, Ph.D., a professor and chair of medicinal chemistry and the Debbie and Sylvia DeSantis Chair in Natural Products Drug Discovery and Development in the UF College of Pharmacy and an affiliate member of the UF Health Cancer Center.

Mineral-rich seaweeds are an important part of human diets, especially in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Scientists hypothesize that seaweed consumption has contributed to lower cancer rates among these populations, but Luesch said there is a research gap in understanding the chemical structures and mechanistic activities responsible for anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory qualities.

UF’s study addresses some of these gaps and concludes that certain seaweed-derived compounds combat inflammation in the digestive tract.

“We focused on one particular Florida seaweed and pinpointed compounds responsible for the majority of the host- and microbiota-mediated activity,” said Luesch, the principal investigator of the study. “Through RNA sequencing of colon tissues, we identified dual beneficial effects on host signaling pathways and gut microbiome, which could have health benefits for the consumer.”

A signaling pathway is a group of molecules that activate each other when they need to pass along a message, such as protecting against oxidative and inflammatory stress. Luesch said if specific seaweed components and natural product preparations can protect healthy cells or reduce the stress on inflamed digestive cells, then the potential exists to prevent the development of inflammatory diseases.

“With any stress response, regulation needs to be tightly controlled,” Luesch said. “Further studies are needed to determine potential dosage and side effects, among many other considerations, before the clinical potential can be fully understood. Additionally, early data suggests this seaweed positively regulates bacteria in the digestive tract that predict responsiveness to immunotherapy for cancer, which means consuming this seaweed might prime patients for a successful outcome with this type of cancer therapy.”

Cymopolia barbata is a marine alga originating in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. UF researchers collected samples of the seaweed off the coast of Boca Grande Key, an island about 15 miles west of Key West, Florida. Luesch is interested in extending the study to other marine algae near Florida and around the world.

The study, “Seaweed Natural Products Modify the Host Inflammatory Response via Nrf2 Signaling and Alter Colon Microbiota Composition and Gene Expression,” was published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine. UF teamed with the Smithsonian Marine Station, A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore to collaborate on the research study.