Seemingly forgotten tropical diseases predominate in the poorest countries of the world and new treatments to combat these are urgently needed. In recent decades, notable progress has been made in the development of new drugs from marine sources. Seaweeds, in particular, are explored as a potential source of new and unique bioactive molecules.
By Yolanda Freile-Pelegrín
Nowadays, many, once widely prevalent diseases seem forgotten – at least by the inhabitants of wealthy countries. In developing countries, however, parasitic, bacterial and viral infections are still among the most common causes of illness. So-called neglected tropical diseases affect approximately 1.4 billion people (many of those afflicted with more than one parasite or infection) in at least 149 countries around the globe and cause around 35,000 deaths per day. They also cost billions of dollars every year to developing economies.
Neglected tropical diseases include, among others, Leishmaniasis, Chagas’ disease, Dengue, Chikungunya and Zika. They commonly prevail in tropical and sub-tropical climates. However, they are not confined to the poorest areas of the world only. The current political and economic destabilization in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and natural disasters like hurricanes have made these diseases reappear beyond these regions.
Despite the magnitude of the problem, forgotten diseases are usually not commercially attractive for the pharmaceutical industry. Consequently, patents and profits play no role in the stimulation of research and innovation. Experts thus agree that the development of new drugs for neglected tropical diseases is urgently needed.
Seaweed compounds as pharmaceuticals?
More and more, natural products from the sea are now recognized as a source of new molecules with pharmacological applications. Particularly macroalgae – also known as seaweeds – which thrive under changing conditions of temperature, light, salinity, tides, waves and even predators are of interest.
Their high capacity to adapt to the marine environment stems from the production of specific metabolites, which cannot be found in other plants. Seaweeds have proven to be a prolific source of various chemical compounds with complex and unique structures and a wide spectrum of potential biological activities. According to a recent review from Botanica Marina, which outlines the current state of research, seaweed-derived molecules display antibacterial, antifungal, antiprotozoal, antituberculous, anticoagulant, antithrombotic and antiviral effects.
The potential for the discovery of new drugs seems enormous. Yet, according to the authors of the paper, investigations so far have covered only the very early stages of the drug discovery process. Could algal compounds become a promising cure for forgotten diseases? We wait to see what further studies might show.
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