EXTRACTS from spirulina, the blue-green algae widely consumed as a superfood, could be turned into a therapeutic treatment for Covid-19, the common cold, and a host of other viruses, following promising initial results from research conducted by ScotBio.
The Scottish biotech company is working with the University of Edinburgh, Robert Gordon University, and the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) to determine how waste molecules from spirulina can be extracted and used for their natural antiviral properties.
Spirulina is already used in the commercial production of a variety of products, including as a dietary supplement and for food colourants. ScotBio’s intensive ‘vertical farming of algae’ approach to producing spirulina helps to recover valuable by-products, including plant-based proteins, whilst minimising waste.
By separating spirulina molecules into different chemical groups, the project has determined the most effective extracts with antiviral activity against coronaviruses, including various SARs-CoV-2 variants (the cause of Covid-19), common cold viruses, and influenza viruses.
This supports earlier studies which observed anti-HIV and anti-HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus) activity in similar compounds. These initial results show that spirulina molecules are broad-acting, have little toxicity towards mammalian cells, and could potentially form the basis of effective treatments against emerging human and animal viral diseases.
Although antiviral agents are typically used for pharmaceuticals, they can also be added to products such as cosmetics – known as ‘cosmeceuticals’ – to fight against viral transmission. ScotBio said that on the back of the project’s findings it is now looking at incorporating the molecule into various consumer products.
Dr Joe Palmer, product development manager, ScotBio, said: “Working with the project consortium has enabled us to fractionate spirulina into distinct chemical groups and then screen the extracts in a safe environment. Through that, we have identified compounds that could be particularly effective against a broad range of viruses from what was previously seen as waste. We can now work on recovering and purifying these molecules as high value ingredients.
“The next step for us is to better understand the market opportunities for these molecules and to fully resolve the relationship between molecule chemistry and their antiviral mechanisms. Our aim is for this project to be a catalyst that will unlock a large and untapped market, helping in the fight against common viruses and future pandemics.”
Liz Fletcher, director of business engagement and operations, IBioIC, commented: “ScotBio is a great example of an ambitious biotechnology company with a unique product. Previous studies on common viruses have shown that spirulina extracts can have many positive effects on the immune response to infection, and it is exciting to support ScotBio in taking this research even further. Our aim is to help companies grow by providing them with the support they need to apply their technologies to new areas.”