Sea Change

Why is the sea wet? Okay, we don’t even need to go there, but seaweed – however many times the brunt of that joke – is proving its worth as a great untapped resource in the fight against infection.

Professor Christine Loscher, from the DCU School of Biotechnology and Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty, has found seaweed can be a big boost for the human immune system.

Professor Loscher, who was named in Silicon Republic’s list of top scientists in 2019, is always looking for new ways to help and protect the immune system in its fight against disease. “Your immune system is a really important surveillance and alarm system in your body, it watches out and protects you against bacteria and fungi and viruses that cause disease and infection,” she said. “But sometimes the immune system can be overactive, and this can cause problems like flare-ups of dermatitis. We want to be able to dampen down the immune reactions that cause those problems without reducing its ability to fight off infections.” And this is where marine life can help. “The sea is teeming with all sorts of life, and those diverse life forms produce chemicals and compounds that may be able to affect our immune systems,” added Professor Loscher. “So, in my lab we start with material from the sea – that might be waste catch from fisheries or seaweed - and we carry out screening tests to see if any sources interact with the immune system. “We found a compound of interest and we worked with chemists in University College Dublin to figure out what was going on. It turns out that this compound from seaweed blocks a key switch in our immune systems called Mal. This stops the kind of inflammatory response that triggers a flare up of dermatitis, but it doesn’t stop other important functions of the immune system.”

Enterprise Ireland provided funding to Professor Loscher’s research that helped formulate the compound for a topical cream with lab tests showing that when the substance was rubbed on the skin, it could reduce dermatitis symptoms. It is hoped the cream will lead to a wider use of the compound in treatment after it has been tested against a standard steroidal cream. “We hope it will be of particular benefit for babies, and also for use with animals such as dogs, who are prone to dermatitis, because the compound is so targeted, and it is unlikely to bring negative side effects.”

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