In the intricate world of IBD, where relief has often been elusive, Algae4IBD, a four-year EU-funded project set to continue until May 2025, is focusing on the anti-inflammatory properties of seaweed and microalgae for the prevention and treatment of IBD. The project aims to deliver two solutions by mid-2025: functional foods and supplements to help prevent the onset of IBD, and nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals for treating the symptoms of IBD and preventing them from recurring.
The ultimate goal, as outlined by Dr Dorit Avni, an immunologist and a biochemist at the MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in Israel, is to integrate the most bioactive algae into pharmaceuticals and food, becoming integral components of IBD prevention and treatment strategies.
She said: “Some day soon, we may be keeping ourselves healthy with algae-enriched yoghurt, smoothies, and bread.”
Co-ordinated by Avni, Algae4IBD aims to harness the therapeutic capabilities of seaweed and microalgae. In a recent article featured in the EU research and innovation magazine Horizon, Avni underlined the value of algae's anti-inflammatory properties in the broader context of medical advancements.
She said: “These properties are of great value in medicine and might be very important in the fight against chronic disease.”
Unraveling the complexity of IBD
IBD encompasses disorders with chronic inflammation of digestive tract tissues, where the immune system attacks the bowel – like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. While its exact cause remains unknown, IBD affects around 2.5 million people in Europe and 10 million worldwide. Its intensity varies: for some it is mild, and for others, it is a debilitating condition. The rising prevalence in young people and uncertain causative factors pose significant challenges for researchers.
Avni said: “Not knowing the exact causes makes it harder to find a cure […] But what we do know is that the rising consumption of ultra-processed food, and the lack of appropriate strategies to avoid foodborne microbes, mean more people are becoming ill with the disease and patients are getting younger. Some children as young as seven have symptoms.”
Algae's therapeutic potential
One of Algae4IBD's important findings is the identification of specific algae strains with potent anti-inflammatory properties. These properties are considered crucial in mitigating the symptoms associated with IBD, such as severe stomach pain, diarrhoea, and chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
The project's researchers have explored the diverse environments in which algae thrive, ranging from ocean floors to lakes and rivers. From this extensive exploration, 21 partners of Algae4IBD have created a species bank, containing over 1,000 algal varieties. The specimens come from Israel and various countries in the EU. The focus has now shifted to the 150 most promising specimens, with initial results hinting at their potential in IBD treatment.
Beyond algae strains, Algae4IBD has unearthed the formidable properties of certain seaweeds, exhibiting not only anti-inflammatory properties but also acting as potent prebiotics. Prebiotics are known for fostering a healthy gut microbiome, a key factor in combating IBD-related challenges. Of particular note is the discovery that certain seaweeds possess the ability to balance the gut microbiome, specifically targeting problematic elements like the bacteria Escherichia coli.
Advancing therapeutic development
As Algae4IBD advances, the project shifts its focus to delve into the chemical composition of compounds responsible for the observed anti-inflammatory responses. This phase involves rigorous testing of the 150 specimens on mice and biopsies extracted from patients with IBD, marking a critical step toward therapeutic development.