Prickly pear: Statistical chemicals

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  • Published: Jan 15, 2017
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Chemometrics & Informatics
thumbnail image: Prickly pear: Statistical chemicals

All in the Med

Chemicals extracted from the prickly pear and brown seaweed, two ubiquitous Mediterranean plants, eased symptoms in organisms suffering from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, according to new research.  Photo by David Bradley

Statistical methods have been used in the analysis of extracts from two common species found on the Mediterranean, the prickly pear and the peacock's tail seaweed; the chemicals show promise in easing symptoms of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Prickly pear trees and the brown seaweed, commonly known as Peacocks tail, are a common sight in the Mediterranean region, one on dry land the other in the sea, obviously. Now, a collaboration between scientists at the University of Malta and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS/University of Bordeaux), France, suggests that has revealed several small molecules from these species that apparently inhibit the aggregation of protein clumps associated with neurotoxicity in several diseases of old age.

Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases are classic disorders associated with old age, although they have hereditary early onset equivalents and the latest studies suggest that they are very much not an inevitable part of aging. Either way, they are both characterised by protein accumulation which causes plaques in regions of the brain associated with memory and cognition in the case of the former and mobility in the latter. Consequently, much suffering is associated with both conditions and the burden on carers and the healthcare system is enormous. Drugs to slow the neurodegenerative process are keenly sought, particularly in the absence of pharmaceutical leads that might actually reverse the damage.

Screening plants

'We have long been screening plants scattered across the Mediterranean for small molecules that interfere with the build-up of toxic protein aggregates," explains Malta's Neville Vassallo. "The robust effects of chemicals derived from the prickly pear and brown seaweed confirm that our search has certainly not been in vain," he adds.

Initially, the researchers ran tests on the extracts against brewer's yeast loaded with the beta-amyloid clumps that are characteristic of affected brain tissue in Alzheimer's disease. Yeast cells are sufficiently close to human cells biologically to act as a useful first proxy for such tests. Following exposure to the extracts, the team observed positive effects on the yeast. The next test candidate was a genetically modified fruit fly model of Alzheimer's disease. Regular treatment with an extract of the seaweed increased the median lifespan of the GM fruit flies by two days. However, an extract of the prickly pear led to a four-day life extension for the insects. On a comparative scale, a single day in the life of a fruit fly can be considered as equivalent to a year of life in a human. The results are thus rather dramatic. In addition, mobility was improved by almost 20% after treatment; a significant improvement.

Protein aggregation

In parallel experiments with fruit flies the brains of which were overloaded with alpha-synuclein, a sticky protein implicated in Parkinson's disease, the team saw less harmful aggregation of the alpha-synuclein proteins; less clumping together of the proteins means less neurotoxicity. The team provides details of their research in the journal Neuroscience Letters.

'We believe that the discovery of bioactive agents that target pathways that are hit by multiple neurodegenerative conditions is the most viable approach in our current fight against brain disorders," lead study author Ruben Cauchi, also at the University of Malta says. "A clear advantage of the drugs used in this study is that, in view of their excellent safety profile, they are already on the market as nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals." The team is now working towards formal clinical trials that will raise the status of the compounds to regulated pharmaceutical rather than food supplement.

"We’re still attempting to discover the exact chemicals responsible for the ameliorative effect," Cauchi confesses. So, the next step in the work is to obtain the actual formulae so that they can be synthesised quickly. This is, of course, a critical step in the pharmaceutical development process. 

Related Links

Neurosci Lett 2017, 638, 12-20: "Extracts from two ubiquitous Mediterranean plants ameliorate cellular and animal models of neurodegenerative proteinopathies"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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