Leading seaweed biochemist Dr Helen Fitton will share her knowledge of commercialising seaweed extracts at the International Seaweed Symposium 2023 in Hobart.
She first came to the seaweed sector more than 20 years ago, with experience as a biochemist, working with polymers in the medical technology sector.
Dr Fitton was instrumental in helping to develop the organic process that Marinova uses to extract the bioactive compound fucoidan from the brown seaweed wakame (Undaria pinnatifida). She contributed to the company’s IP and established an ongoing research program to evaluate the properties of fucoidan.
Almost 3000 research papers provide evidence of fucoidan's wide-ranging anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, assisting with everything from gut and heart health to skincare and healthy aging. Dr Fitton has authored several of those papers.
Marinova’s high-quality organic extract now sells for up to $12 a gram in its purest form, for use in pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmetics and veterinary products.
As Australia’s seaweed sector takes shape, Dr Fitton says there is much still to learn and develop from well-known seaweed polysaccharides –various classes of long-chain carbohydrates. These include fucoidans from brown seaweeds, carrageenans from red seaweeds and ulvans from green seaweeds.
Seaweed polysaccharides offer the ‘low-hanging fruit’ for new products and markets. They could help focus research into the selection of native Australian seaweed species for farming.
Reduced inflammation, without drugs
In one recent project, Dr Fitton supported research into the properties of a polysaccharide extracted from a farmed Australian sea lettuce (Ulva spp.) The research was led by Dr Lauren Roach and Professor Barbara Meyer at the University of Wollongong and involved placebo-controlled, randomised human clinical trials.
The researchers found that the extract can help reduce inflammation experienced by overweight and obese people.
Dr Fitton says at the start of the trial participants all recorded high levels of cytokines, which are a measure of inflammatory response in the body. “But every measured elevated cytokine was reduced by simply ingesting the seaweed extract.
“It was a consistent effect that indicates a serious application – a non-drug method to reduce inflammation. Low-level inflammation is associated with metabolic disorders, so this modest dietary intervention is another way to address it.”
This research was commissioned by Dr Pia Winberg, founder and chief scientist of Venus Shell Systems which farms the unique type of sea lettuce in NSW, as she explores new avenues of product development. Dr Winberg’s business already produces food and healthcare products under the PhycoHealth brand, including supplements for gut health.
Dr Fitton highlights the importance of seaweed’s bioactive properties in providing a pathway to high-value specialty products for Australia, rather than low-value high-volume production – the approach that has dominated the country’s primary industries in the past.
These ‘bioactives’ are the chemical compounds that generate a response in living organisms, cells or tissue – such as reducing inflammation or improving digestion.
“Human health uses are the gold standard. Although there are many safety and regulatory standards that need to be addressed, these potentially offer the highest-value returns,” Dr Fitton explains.
Antiviral properties are a key target for research and development in this space. She points to the Austrian company Marinomed Biotech AG, which has developed a carrageenan-based nasal spray that blocks a broad range of cold and flu viruses, including the COVID-19 virus.
“A pile of seaweed on the pier is worth nothing without a market. A novel bioactive remains interesting, but not inherently useful if the species it comes from is difficult to access in the wild or cannot be propagated, or if the bioactive cannot be extracted in a safe, cost-effective way. And new products require research and development as well as market acceptance,” she says.
Commercial success lies in marrying all elements of the production and supply chain, and it can be a long process.
Dr Fitton will address the path to commercialisation in detail as a keynote speaker at International Seaweed Symposium from 19-24 February 2023. This will be an in-person event, in Hobart, Australia and online.