Photo of sea lettuce
Scientists in Florida have discovered that the common sea lettuce may have powerful cancer-fighting properties

Revealed: seaweed’s cancer-fighting properties

10 September, 2013

Natural Health News — A new defense against prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men, could come from a common seaweed.

In a new study researchers in Florida report that after studying various seaweeds with cancer-preventive potential they have identified one that shows particular promise.

The researchers isolated specific compounds in this common green algae, known as sea lettuce, and undertook studies to understand exactly how they work. Their findings, published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research, show how the species may protect multiple organs from disease and may be particularly effective in preventing prostate cancer.

Sea lettuce is commonly consumed in Asian countries where the risk of prostate cancer is low, but there have been no rigorous studies to verify the correlation, said lead researchers Hendrik Luesch, PhD, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry in the University of Florida College of Pharmacy.

Luesch’s marine natural products laboratory concentrated on cellular functions, revealing specific mechanisms that contribute to the marine plant’s anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties and identifying its active chemical ingredients.

“We now have scientific evidence that this seaweed raises the body’s antioxidant defense system and therefore might potentially prevent a number of diseases, including cancer,” said Luesch. “This mechanism appears to be most relevant to prostate cancer.”

Good for East and West

Scientists have long believed that seaweeds, a staple of Asian diets, may lower cancer risk in Western populations. When Luesch investigated at the molecular level, he identified key factors that support the hypothesis, including which seaweeds might provide the most protection against free radicals.

Free radicals are a byproduct of exposure to environmental toxins and even occur during digestion. They damage cells, causing oxidation and inflammation that lead to a number of chronic health conditions such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis, Luesch said.

Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables protect the body against these free radicals, mostly through a scavenging process of elimination. Rather than simply removing the damaging free radicals through this direct reaction, compounds in sea lettuce worked through an indirect mechanism, Luesch found.

Boosting antioxidants

This process increases the levels of a suite of antioxidant enzymes and boosts antioxidants in cells, producing longer-lasting protection. Regulated by stretches of DNA called antioxidant response elements, the enzymes prevent oxidative damage and inflammation.

Luesch points to sulforaphane, a chemical in broccoli, as an example of a cancer-preventive natural product that has been shown to work through this kind of regulation. His paper describes how increased expression of these enzymes correlates with an increased antioxidant status of the cell and anti-inflammatory activity.

According to Luesch, the antioxidant enzyme activities in sea lettuce make it ideal for development as a preventive natural supplement. He sees potential for making a big difference, not only for men’s health, but also to prevent an array of inflammatory diseases that challenge everyone’s health.