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Seaweed could stop coronavirus from infecting human cells

According to a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU), a substance extracted from edible marine algae could stop the coronavirus from infecting human cells. Due to its antiviral properties, a water-soluble polysaccharide extracted from the cell wall of green seaweed called ulvan could prove to be an essential weapon in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The lack of access to vaccines takes the lives of many victims and even accelerates the creation of new variants,” said study lead author Alexander Golberg, a professor of Environmental Studies at TAU. “The study is still in its early stages, but we hope that the discovery will be used in the future to develop an accessible and effective drug, preventing infection with the coronavirus.”

Golberg and his colleagues have been working with seaweed for the past eight years, looking for different compounds, particularly for the food industry. During the first lockdown, they also started to investigate whether some seaweed components could be used as a treatment for COVID-19. Since previous research has already shown that seaweed compounds had antiviral properties, the scientists decided to evaluate them against COVID.

“Ulvan is extracted from marine algae called Ulva, which is also called ‘sea lettuce,’ and is food in places like Japan, New Zealand and Hawaii,” Golberg explained. “It has previously been reported that ulvan is effective against viruses in agriculture and also against some of the human viruses − and when coronavirus arrived, we asked to test its activity.”

The Israeli scientists grew ulvan and sent it to the Southern Research Institute in Alabama, US, where a cellular model was built and exposed to both ulvan and the coronavirus. The researchers discovered that, in the presence of ulvan, the coronavirus did not infect the cells that they modelled. 

However, since ulvan is actually a mixture of many natural substances, more research is needed to find out which is the one that actually prevents infection. Moreover, clinical tests on animals and, ultimately, humans are necessary before such a treatment can be commercialized.

“As long as billions in the low-income world do not have access to the vaccine, the virus is expected to develop more and more variants, which may be resistant to vaccines – and the war against the coronavirus will continue. For this reason, it is very important, for the sake of all mankind, to find a cheap and accessible solution that will suit even economically weak populations in developing countries,” Professor Golberg concluded.

The study is published in the journal PeerJ.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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