MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Scientists from Israel and Iceland recently suggested that an extract of spirulina algae has the potential to reduce the chances of COVID-19 patients developing a serious case of the disease. Here is the abstract of their paper:

An array of infections, including the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), trigger macrophage activation syndrome (MAS) and subsequently hypercytokinemia, commonly referred to as a cytokine storm (CS). It is postulated that CS is mainly responsible for critical COVID-19 cases, including acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Recognizing the therapeutic potential of Spirulina blue-green algae (Arthrospira platensis), in this in vitro stimulation study, LPS-activated macrophages and monocytes were treated with aqueous extracts of Spirulina, cultivated in either natural or controlled light conditions. We report that an extract of photosynthetically controlled Spirulina (LED Spirulina), at a concentration of 0.1 µg/mL, decreases macrophage and monocyte-induced TNF-α secretion levels by over 70% and 40%, respectively. We propose prompt in vivo studies in animal models and human subjects to determine the putative effectiveness of a natural, algae-based treatment for viral CS and ARDS, and explore the potential of a novel anti-TNF-α therapy.

The Jerusalem Post reported that 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. “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.”

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This is undoubtedly interesting, and one can only hope that their research is successful. However, it is a far cry from what some journalists are already making of the news. One headline read: “Scientists Discover ‘All-Natural’ COVID Treatment That Can Prevent ‘Cytokine Storm’ In Severe Patients.”

 

 

 

13 Responses to Spirulina algae could reduce COVID mortality rate … (but much more research is necessary)

  • Potential efficacy apart, it is a red flag to hear “a lead author” state “ the algae are a completely natural substance and should not produce any side effects.”. Sars-Cov-2 is completely natural…and smallpox, polio, ebola…

    It does not give one any confidence that this person has a good grasp of science or logic.

    • yes, I noted that too.

    • Is that the only negative you can find? Doesn’t take much for you to see red flags! Now let’s place your red flag in proper context: This is what he meant by a ‘natural substance’…
      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.

      Do you really have a problem with the above statement Dullspark?

      • I think you might have a problem with understanding common sense, my friend

      • Yes I do have other concerns, better expressed below than I could do.

        “Treated with CHEMICAL” ho ho ho that is a classic, and you couldn’t resist all caps just to emphasise your lack of understanding.

    • Digitalis is also completely natural. It may mitigate certain heart conditions but it may also cause your death if overdosed. The statement that something is natural and therefore should not have any side effects is faulty.

      But maybe the erroneous statement comes from the fact that the lead author has no expertise in Medicine, Biology, Pharmaceutics or related sciences.

      Asaf completed his postdoctoral research in the University of Cambridge, his doctoral work in UCL Faculty of Engineering Sciences, STEaPP, and studied Environmental Sciences in the University of Oxford. He was a Research Scholar at Columbia University in the City of New York, and a Lord Weidenfeld Scholar in Balliol College, Oxford.

      https://www.idc.ac.il/en/pages/faculty.aspx?username=atzachor

      • In my experiences engineers seem to be able to misunderstand the behaviour of biological systems in a way that nobody else can.

        I think one factor is that evolution has a way of repurposing existing systems rather than coming up with new ones so that you end up with the sort of kludge that nobody in their right mind could ever have designed, and with endless modifications in order to make it work at all (look at the human eye, for instance). A second factor is the huge number of feedback systems which maintain homeostasis, all of them overlapping and interacting with each other with mind-boggling complexity (which is why there are gene variants which influence height, intelligence etc., not genes FOR them). A third is that this results in what is effectively a large random influence on any investigation. All of this is not only baffling but deeply disturbing to the ordered mind of the individual who chooses to train in engineering.

        • ad hominem is always convenient.
          You may have missed the other four authors…

          • Biologist,

            The other fact is that small dosages of spirulina extract will have no detrimental effect in patients.

            The authors claim to have demonstrated that an as-yet-unidentified substance extracted from spirulina appears to have a pharmacological effect on macrophages in culture.

            It is not safe to assume that this substance will have the same effect on macrophages in a living organism, given all the other controls and feedback systems that influence them. Nor is it safe to assume that if it did have those effects, that it would influence the course of Covid-19 or any other infection.

            They have not established that whatever it is can be absorbed via the oral route, which tissues preferentially concentrate it, how it is metabolised, how the concentration and any effects change with time or indeed that it is possible to achieve an effective concentration in blood or tissues.

            Furthermore, if this substance does have a pharmacological effect than ipso facto it has the potential to be toxic. It might well be that a concentration sufficient to cause the desired effect on macrophages has unforseen and unwanted effects elsewhere. The fact that it is natural is irrelevant (though blue-green algae do not form part of the natural diet of primates).

  • I like microalgae a lot. Have been working with them for > 20 years. This paper, however, is not a great example for microalgal research, and if I would have been reviewer of this paper, I would have rejected it outright.
    I find many aspects of this work problematic (to say the least) and have many questions after just a very brief read-through.

    Just to name a few issues:
    *If I understand the (rather poorly written) materials & method section correctly, then they only did ONE cultivation for each light regime in 180L photobioreactors and prepared ONE extraction. This would mean that no replicates of the extracts were investigated (so n=1).

    *Why the heck did they use 180L scale? Why not use smaller volumes and more replicates instead? How was the extraction done, i.e. which volumes were used to prepare the extracts?

    *It seems very unusual to do a differential extract analysis like this (with no cultivation replicates), by choosing two quite unsystematically selected light regimes. Although it is not clear to me what they mean with “full-range solar spectrum”, I assume that they used an artificial light source (e.g. neon tubes or LEDs) that resemble natural light, and compared this to LED light enriched with photosynthetically active wavelength (i.e. blue/red light) and even UV. Using light with such different quality with equal intensity of 750 µmol photons per m2s seems nonsensical, since the latter will induce far stronger cellular responses related to photoinhibition/light protection reactions, therefore altering many of the cellular metabolites. Whenever I come across such experimental setups, I ask myself what the heck the guys were thinking when planning the experiment. But of course, you CAN do your experiments like this… if you want.

    *They claim to have done a metabolomic profile and detected 109 metabolites. However, they seem to have no clue what these 109 substances were (let alone what the active ingredients were), since they did not provide information on the chemical nature of these substances.

    *They only conducted a simple, cell-based in vitro analysis by adding their extracts to human monocyte (THP-1) and murine macrophage cells and then detected reduced TNF-α Secretion.
    How does this have any medical relevance?! What was the dose of the active ingredients? If you just look at TNF-α secretion: what about other (potential cytotoxic) effects elicited by the extract?

    *In order to reduce mortality rates as a drug: How should the extracts be administered without degradation (after oral administration) or without eliciting allergic reactions (after injection)?

    I could go on and on, but since it´s quite late, I have to stop here.

    My conclusion: Questionable experimental setup, essential information missing, authors jumping on the bandwagon of the flood of SARS-CoV-2 papers.

    I must say that I do not understand why you chose the title “Spirulina algae could reduce COVID mortality rate … (but much more research is necessary)” for this blog post.
    On the basis of this paper, even insinuating that Spirulina extract could reduce COVID-19 mortality rate seem ludicrous to me.
    I might add that this is not the first paper claiming potential miraculous medical effects for A. platensis. Those papers pop up every now and then… and then disappear without any follow-up.

  • Jashak is much better qualified than I am to comment on the quality of this research, but even if it were done more rigorously it is still basic science, which is a long way from clinical treatment. There are many hurdles to jump in the journey from in vitro experiments, via animal studies, phase I, phase II and phase III trials, before a new approach can be shown to be safe, effective and useful. Nearly every candidate falls on the way, which is why it takes about a trillion dollars to bring a new drug into clinical use.

    The process also takes many years, and if this does lead to a treatment for Covid-19 derived from Spirulina, the pandemic will be over by then.

    Most people who aren’t involved in the process don’t appreciate the importance of basic scientific research, which can lead in completely unexpected directions and without which we wouldn’t have any new discoveries at all. This is particularly true of many funding bodies, which very often are controlled by people interested in new products, not new knowledge, and therefore prioritise projects where a practical application is in sight. For this reason, many early drug candidates (or in this case research with the potential to identify new drug candidates) are heralded as a potential breakthrough in the treatment for something, usually cancer (and very often reported in the non-specialist press as though it were about to enter the pharmacopoeia). It seems that Covid-19 has joined malignant disease as a rallying cry for funding.

  • Not surprising to see so many doctors in the grip of pharmaceutical firms and conventional thinking. The fact remains that “big pharma” has no interest in reducing mortality but delivering vaccines. The other fact is that small dosages of spirulina extract will have no detrimental effect in patients.

    • @ Biologist:
      I´m sorry, dear “colleague”, but you apparently do not know what you are talking about.
      Where is the evidence for your claimed “fact” that small dosages of Spirulina extract will have no detrimental effects? Making such a simplified statement seems silly to me.
      In your view, does it not matter how concentrated the extract is, what chemicals it contains and if it is administered orally or by injection?!
      Well, I assume that you are more like a “self-proclaimed, hobby biologist”, rather than a person who indeed studied the subject.

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