Drugs From Plants: Old Idea, New Directions

(DGIwire) – “Pharmacognosy” may not be a familiar word, but the concept it defines is a very old one: the search in nature for potentially useful medicines and therapies. Drug Discovery & Development recently published an interview on the topic with Andrew Dahl, President and CEO of ZIVO Bioscience, a biotech/agtech R&D company engaged in the commercialization of nutritional and medicinal products derived from proprietary algal strains. As Dahl notes, algae have a lot to offer the pharma industry.

“Algae produce an abundance of sterols, steroids, phenols, ecosanoids, peptides, proteins, polysaccharides and lipids that are biologically active in humans,” Dahl says. “Some marine algae are being cultivated as source material for cancer drugs, while others provide cardiovascular benefits, such as Omega 3 oils, but without the residual mercury that may be present when extracting Omega 3 oils from fish or crustaceans.”

According to Dahl, a partnership between a pharma company and an R&D company focused on algae could be beneficial because the number of bioactive compounds produced by a single algal species can number in the hundreds. Once the species is understood and its metabolism mapped out, a biotech firm is in a position to deliver a stream of useful lead compounds or discovery-stage candidates at relatively low cost and compressed timelines.

ZIVO’s own research into a single strain of algae has revealed potential therapeutic applications for bovine mastitis, canine osteoarthritis and human cholesterol management. Elsewhere, other algae-derived compounds—such as alginates and glycosaminoglycans—are already in common use in pharmaceutical manufacturing, Dahl points out.

One emerging field, glycoscience, has particularly benefitted from the incorporation of algae into drug development programs, as Drug Discovery & Development explains. According to Dahl, algae produce an amazing array of sugars both simple and complex in structure. The role of sugars in complex metabolic processes is only now being discovered; many protein-to-protein binding reactions have been found to be mediated by a strand of sugar. Like antibodies or hormonal therapies, glycoscience will likely have a significant impact on researchers’ understanding of mammalian metabolism and how those researchers address disease, injury or dysfunction.

The principal challenges involved in adapting algae-based extracts for pharmaceutical compounds include the complexity, fragility and sheer volume of potential combinations—but this is not limited to algae; indeed, as Dahl notes, many natural products present a significant challenge to identification and characterization of a single effective agent.

“Given the impressive array of algae-based research now occurring at centers worldwide, this area will probably continue to serve as a source of advances in animal and human medicine for a long time to come,” Dahl adds.