PhD chemist Helen Fitton discusses the health benefits of complex seaweed-derived compounds known as fucoidans
Nutrition In Focus recently had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Helen Fitton, PhD. She is chief scientist for Marinova Pty Ltd, a biotechnology company in Tasmania, Australia, which is dedicated to the development and manufacture of active biological extracts from marine macroalgae. In this article Dr. Fitton shares discoveries about the properties of fucoidan, a polysaccharide found in seaweed.
NutritionInFocus: Your background is in polymer chemistry. Tell us a little about that, and how you came to specialize in fucoidans.
Fitton: I’m British, and I began my work with a focus on crafting long chains of polymers in hydrogels and plastics. I was part of the team that made a synthetic cornea years ago. I then got married and moved to Australia, and began to work on seaweeds and the bioactive compounds in them. Fucoidans are remarkable. First of all, you can eat seaweed extracts, which is great. Fucoidans have very powerful biological functions, and yet no toxicity. To this day I’m never bored working on them.
NutritionInFocus: Do you think seaweeds developed fucoidans as a survival strategy?
Fitton: Absolutely. Fucoidans concentrate around the reproductive parts of the plant and protect it from marine viruses. They also prevent the adhesion of bacteria to cell surfaces in cell cultures, and probably do the same in humans as well. For instance, they prevent the adhesion of gastric pathogen, Helicobacter pylori, to gastric cells. A group of scientists in Asia looked at whether eating fucoidan would help individuals with stomach ulcers. They added it to the normal antibiotic treatment and saw an increase in the rate of healing. That makes sense, since fucoidans decrease inflammation as well as inhibit the ability of pathogens to stick and persist. Once you stop a pathogen from sticking to a cell, you render it much more vulnerable to antibiotics.
Fucoidans decrease inflammation as well as inhibit the ability of pathogens to stick and persist.
We also looked at the survival of both normal Escherichia coli, which is naturally present in the gut flora, and Staphylococcus spp., a pathogenic bacteria that can cause horrible diarrhea and is usually treated with an antibiotic called gentamicin. We found that if you add fucoidan to the sample, the [normal] E. coli is protected from the gentamicin, but the [pathogenic] Staphylococcus spp. get knocked out. Fucoidan has a synergistic effect with antibiotics, even for the treatment of methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA).
NutritionInFocus: Tell us a little bit about the anti-inflammatory activity.
Fitton: We carried out a nice colitis study in mice, since colitis models in mice mimic inflammation in the human gut. And with a very modest dose you can restore the mouse back to nearly normal. Right now we are working on obtaining biopsies from individuals and testing fucoidan’s effect on inflammatory markers in biopsied tissue. But that’s not an easy experiment to perform—first you have to convince people to agree to the biopsies!
Fucoidan has a synergistic effect with antibiotics, even for the treatment of methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA).
Fucoidans are able to block selectins, which are receptors on inflammatory white blood cells called neutrophils. By blocking selectin function you can stop the white blood cells from migrating into inflamed tissues. So you might, for instance, stop damage after a stroke or heart attack or an accident—any event where there is tissue breakdown and massive inflammation. It’s that post-inflammatory cascade that can cause so much damage.
NutritionInFocus: Is fucoidan also antiviral?
Fitton: Yes, it blocks certain viruses from entering the cell via its receptors. This is a specific receptor blockade response. You can see it very strongly with the herpes group of viruses, particularly Type 2 herpes, and cytomegalovirus. It also works well against HIV. It doesn’t actually kill these viruses. There is no killing going on at all. It simply blocks the receptors they use to enter the cell, which of course prevents them from using the cellular machinery to replicate.
NutritionInFocus: Is the action mostly in the gut, or is there systemic uptake?
Fitton: That’s a big, important question. Like other large molecules, such as chondroitin sulfate, most of the effect is in the gut, but there is also uptake and definite systemic biological effects. In one of our initial studies we looked at how much was systemic after oral ingestion, and we estimated about 0.6% of a dose.
NutritionInFocus: Fucoidans can vary greatly in their arrangements. Do they share some common abilities across all varieties?
Fitton: Yes. All fucoidans have a lot of fucose [a type of sugar]. Fucoidan from Undaria pinnatifida has a few more galactose molecules in the background and is more acetylated, which makes it slightly more fat-soluble than fucoidan from Fucus vesiculosus or other sources. All fucoidans are heavily sulfated, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and block selectins. Research into fucoidan has continued to gain pace over the last few years and point towards many exciting potential therapeutic or adjunct uses.
Biography: Helen Fitton, BsC, MsC, PhD, is an applied chemist and the chief scientist for Marinova Pty Ltd, a biotechnology company headquartered in Tasmania, Australia. Dr. Fitton is also an adjunct senior researcher at the University of Tasmania. She has contributed to 35 published research papers and three book chapters. She also coauthored several peer review articles summarizing the scientific literature on fucoidans.
Click here to see References
 Fitton J. Therapies from fucoidan; multifunctional marine polymers. Marine Drugs. 2011;9:1731-60.
 Chua E-G, et al. Fucoidans disrupt adherence of Helicobacter pylori to AGS cells in vitro. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:120981.
 Juffrie M RI, et al. The efficacy of fucoidan on gastric ulcer. Indonesian Journal of Biotechnology. 2006;11(2):908-13.
 Research undertaken at the University of Tasmania, Australia.
 Choi SM, et al. Synergistic effect between fucoidan and antibiotics against clinic methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Adv Biosci Biotech. 2015 Apr 2;6(04):275.
 Lean QY, et al. Fucoidan extracts ameliorate acute colitis. PLoS One. 2015 Jun 17;10(6):e0128453.6.
 Hayashi K, Nakano T, et al. Defensive effects of a fucoidan from brown alga Undaria pinnatifida against herpes simplex virus infection. Int Immunopharmacol. 2008;8(1):109-16.