Gene therapy key discovered in seaweed

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A researcher from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has discovered that carrageenan, a common extract of red seaweed, may be used as a delivery agent in gene therapy.

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Annabelle V. Briones, a research scientist at the DOST Industrial Technology Development Institute, found that carrageenan, an extract of the Eucheuma variety of red seaweed, may be used in the delivery of genetic material in gene therapy.

Gene therapy is a treatment in which new DNA is introduced into diseased cells, with the intention of reproducing new, healthy cells. As Briones explained, although the therapy has been known for decades, it is extremely difficult to carry out because handling genetic material for transfer is a delicate and complicated process.

Briones’ study tested different types of carrageenan as a “coating” material for DNA in cultured cells. The coating protected the DNA from damage during the gene transfer process. Although all three types of carrageenan tested had better results than gene transfer not using the carrageenan coating, Briones found that a particular type, called the iota type, had the highest transfection efficiency, i.e., resulted in the highest amount of intact DNA after transfer.

“The iota carrageenan has the best release capability of the DNA material into the target cells,” Briones said.
Briones presented the results of her pioneering work during the Scientific Session of the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) Chemical Sciences Division on May 23 at the University of Sto. Tomas Research Center for the Natural Sciences and Applied Sciences.

She said that tests using cultured cells showed good results, and that the next phase of the research would be to test the technology in live organisms.

Her discovery has already been granted a patent.

Versatile product

Apart from applications in pharmaceuticals, carrageenan is commonly used as a food additive and stabilizer to improve the texture of ice cream, soymilk, and other products.

In pharmaceuticals, carrageenan has shown some use as an excipient agent in pills with extended release formulations, helping to control the rate at which the active ingredients are released in the body.

The country’s seaweed industry is a key dollar export earner and the Philippines used to be the world’s leading exporter of seaweed derivatives to countries like the US, China and France. Dried seaweed is used as an ingredient in meat processing, processed food, condiments, personal care products, and pet foods.

Vietnam and Indonesia have overtaken the Philippines in recent years, however, due to better government support for production technologies and increased yield, Briones said.

Briones urged the government to increase support to the carrageenan industry in terms of research and development and improved production and post-production processes. She also said that the government should encourage farmers to venture into seaweed farming to meet the increasing world demand for seaweed products and derivatives.

Briones was awarded the 2016 NRCP Achievement Award (Chemical Sciences Division) in March 2017.

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