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Annual Report 2017

Exploring seaweeds as a medical cure

Researchers at the University of New Brunswick know that discovery can come from unexpected places for those willing to look. Just ask Thierry Chopin, a professor of marine biology and scientific director of the Canadian Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture Network based at UNB’s Saint John campus.

Dr. Chopin is one of the authors of a study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters that indicated that a cure for Parkinson’s Disease might be found in seaweeds. The emergence of Parkinson’s disease is linked to the misfolding of the protein α-synuclein. Dr. Chopin and the paper’s other authors found that an extract from the brown seaweed Alaria esculenta can prevent this conversion and, therefore, could be useful in avoiding the onset of the disease or delaying its progress.

Dr. Chopin says the work was possible because of the strengths and diversity of the research team from UNB, Dalhousie University and the National Research Council in Halifax.

“What made it possible was our complementary interdisciplinary team: knowledge in the physiology and biochemistry of seaweeds, being able to grow them, and being able to conduct the right suite of assays to make the demonstration of the properties of our extract.”

Lateral thinking

Dr. Chopin and his colleagues had to make a few leaps in logic to connect seaweeds to Parkinson’s disease.

“We started thinking along the following lines: the north Atlantic Ocean is a largely unexplored resource in terms of organisms that have adapted to live in cold and variable environments – these seaweeds have to survive at low tide at -25 °C in the winter and 25 °C in the summer. These are situations known to challenge protein folding. Therefore, they should be ideal for the discovery of molecules that prevent toxic protein misfolding.”

Eventually, that led them to Alaria esculenta, or winged kelp, a cold temperate north Atlantic species that can be found in the Bay of Fundy. It is a brown seaweed, though less abundant than other kelps. However, Dr. Chopin’s lab at UNB has been cultivating kelps since the year 2000.

He sees tremendous potential in the Bay of Fundy, a unique ecosystem that UNB researchers have direct access to.

“We have the right species of seaweeds and the right conditions to cultivate them. However, we need the aquaculture industry to diversify beyond fish and the appropriate regulations to allow this diversification. We cannot continue to read how ‘Seaweeds are the next superfood’ and do nothing with such a rich resource right in our own backyard,” he says.

Dr. Chopin points to the success other nations have had at making use of the seaweed resource that New Brunswick has so far left largely untapped.

“Worldwide seaweed production is 27.3 million metric tonnes – worth $5.6 billion U.S.,” he says. “However, it is mostly an Asian story, with more than 97 per cent produced by China, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Malaysia. Hopefully, as people in the western world realize more and more the benefits of seaweeds for them and the environment, we will see the emergence of this sector right here.”