Algae extract may avert severe COVID deterioration, say Israeli researchers

Scientists, in peer-reviewed study: ’Cytokine storm,’ an immune overreaction, could be prevented by substance that is already FDA-approved for food and dietary supplements

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Spirulina tablets and powder (Alexlky via iStock via Getty Images)
Spirulina tablets and powder (Alexlky via iStock via Getty Images)

An algae extract may help prevent the immune overreaction that often causes serious COVID illness, Israeli researchers say.

Their study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Biotechnology on experiments in which the extract reduced the severity of artificially induced cytokine storms in a lab. This is a term used to describe the overproduction of small proteins, called cytokines, which galvanize immune cells to action.

The researchers monitored the production of TNF-α protein — pronounced TNF alpha — one of the key proteins that causes cytokine storms, in different test tubes. Some included just immune system cells and a pathogen that triggers a cytokine storm. Other test tubes also included an extract from a specially modified version of spirulina, an algae that is attracting scholarly interest for a range of possible but as yet unproven health benefits.

“When the algae extract was included in optimum quantities, there was a 70% reduction in the release of TNF-α proteins, which is very encouraging,” said Dr. Asaf Tzachor, a biotechnology researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, and lead author of the study. “This indicates that the algae extract may be used to prevent cytokine storms if given to patients soon after diagnosis.”

A facility in Iceland where spirulina used in the new research is grown. (Courtesy of the Interdisciplinary Center)

Clinical trials will start soon, with the aim of producing oral drops, but Tzachor stressed that the research is currently at an early stage. He said that the fact that spirulina is already considered safe in food production and as a dietary supplement — including by America’s Food and Drug Administration — is expected to enable clinical trials to progress quickly.

Dr. Asaf Tzachor, a biotechnology researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center (courtesy of the Interdisciplinary Center)

The algae extract is produced by an Icelandic company, VAXA, which has long championed its qualities when taken as a food supplement in enhancing anti-oxidation, anti-inflammation and anti-tumor activities.

The company has received European Union funding to explore and develop treatments for COVID-19. To do so, it is altering growth conditions of the algae using LED lighting in order to control its metabolic profile, and “enhance” it.

Tzachor’s said that his IDC School of Sustainability and its collaborators, Israeli state-funded Migal Galilee institute and the Icelandic MATIS, have been exploring the algae’s potential on an independent basis and are not receiving funding from VAXA.

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