The earliest records of medicinal use of fucoidan-containing seaweeds occur at Monte Verde in southern Chile. In the 1970s, fascinating archaeological digs began to unearth cuds of masticated seaweeds - some had been cooked and some had been mixed with other plants and chewed raw.
The history of fucoidan
For centuries, fucoidan-containing seaweeds have been prized for their dietary and therapeutic properties. Their medicinal properties have been particularly well documented in Asian cultures, where seaweeds have been used to address health conditions that range from nausea, congestion and inflammation through to abscesses and tumours.
Despite the long history of seaweeds as medicinal agents, it was not until the twentieth century that fucoidan was first isolated and recognised for its therapeutic potential. Once fucoidans became commercially available, global research into their unique bioactive properties increased significantly. There are now over 3000 scientific papers supporting the physiological benefits of fucoidans. As a result of this research, fucoidan extracts are now used in a variety of applications including dietary supplements, medical devices, veterinary products and topical formulations for skincare and dermatology.
An overview of the global history of fucoidans is provided below.
Roman historian Pliny the Elder and Greek doctor Dioscorides Pedanius recommended the consumption of seaweeds for therapeutic purposes. Both reported it was an excellent treatment for gout, rashes, intestinal problems and liver disorders.
English botanist John Gerard authored Generall Historie of Plantes. It became the most prevalent botany book in English in the 17th century. Gerard noted the use of seaweed for all manner of ailments.
Professor Harald Kylin from Uppsala University in Sweden was the first chemist to isolate and describe the slimy film found on many seaweeds as ‘fucoidin’, subsequently referred to as fucoidan. Kylin’s early investigations focussed on fucoidan from Ascophyllum nodosum, Fucus vesiculosus, Laminaria digitata and Laminaria saccharina.
The nature of the cell wall constituents of red and brown algae were studied throughout the 1920s by Bird and Haas at University College, London.
In their laboratory at the University of Edinburgh, Percival and Ross prepared crude fucoidan extracts from multiple seaweed species in an attempt to reconcile some of the conflicting views on the nature of fucoidan.
Methods of extraction and isolation of fucoidan from brown seaweed were determined on laboratory scale by Black et al. at the Institute of Seaweed Research in the UK.
Professor Springer, and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA, reported anticoagulant activities of fucoidan fractions from Fucus vesiculousus.
Springer and Bernardi's examination of highly purified fucoidan fractions furthered the understanding of both physical and chemical characteristics.
Crude fucoidan from Fucus vesiculosus became commercially available from Sigma Inc in the USA thereby expanding opportunities for global fucoidan research.
Research noting the potential inhibitory effects of fucoidan extracts on cancer cells began to emerge, primarily from Japan. Studies, such as those published by Yamaoto et al. were published reporting potential anti-tumour effects.
A Japanese research group led by Sugawara published multiple papers indicating fucoidans may have a future role to play supporting immune response.
Stoolman and Rosen’s research at the University of California in the USA suggested fucoidan extracts may block cell surface receptors on lymphocytes.
Research by Teas et al. in the USA suggested that a diet containing 5% brown seaweed may be effective in delaying tumour development in rats.
Research by Australian team Chong and Parish suggested a possible role for fucoidans in supporting inflammatory response.
Baba et al. showed that sulfated polysaccharides, including fucoidans, inhibited the infection and replication of various viruses in vitro.
Australian researchers Willenborg and Parish were the first to show that fucoidan extracts may inhibit brain inflammation in an animal model.
Following the introduction of the Japanese seaweed Undaria pinnatifida to Australian waters, interest began to grow in the potential to produce fucoidan extracts in the Southern Hemisphere.
Fucoidan research expanded significantly in the 1990s in Japan, including multiple studies by Itoh et al. exploring anti-tumor activity.
Swedish based Hirmo et al. published a research paper on sulfated polysaccharides, such as fucoidans, exploring the inhibition of Helicobacter pylori bacteria.
Australian company Marinova Pty Ltd established its headquarters in Tasmania and began harvesting Undaria pinnatifida from which to source fucoidan. Demand quickly increased, resulting in the company moving to source additional commercial quantities of wild grown Undaria from Patagonia, Argentina.
Marinova developed a unique fucoidan extraction process. Differing from traditional extraction methods, the aqueous extraction process produces fucoidan extracts that are unadulterated in chemical structure and free from solvent residues.
The potential efficacy of fucoidans on gastric ulcers was first reported by Indonesian researchers Juffrie et al.
Commercial fucoidan extracts designed specifically for topical application made their debut onto the global market.
A Japanese study in which elderly men and women ingested a dietary fucoidan extract showed an increased immune response to a seasonal influenza vaccination.
High purity, certified organic fucoidan extracts sold under the Australian Maritech® brand are the first to gain global regulatory acceptance.
Maritech® extracts from Undaria pinnatifida and Fucus vesiculosus were granted ‘Generally Recognised as Safe’ (GRAS) status with the US FDA and EU novel foods approval.
New research led by the University of Cologne showed activity against norovirus – for which there are no current treatments.
A Chinese research team published a comprehensive review on the potential of fucoidans to treat renal disease. A fucoidan preparation was approved in China in 2003 and subsequently used in a clinical setting for chronic renal failure.
The potential of fucoidan utilization in the development of pharmaceutical treatments was explored by Polish researchers, noting the compounds broad biological activity and possible antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antiviral and antithrombotic effects.
The first clinical trial on intravenous delivery of a radiolabelled fucoidan is reported. The research focussed on the use of a fucoidan extract to image thrombi and may become the first intravenous clinical application of fucoidan.
An Australian clinical study showed that high purity fucoidan from Undaria pinnatifida influenced over 30 different biological pathways and processes.
Australian and UK researchers reported that high purity fucoidan from Undaria pinnatifida was effective in significantly reducing clinical symptoms and lung damage in a severe Influenza A H1N1 animal model.
Published scientific papers attesting to the bioactivity of fucoidan surpass 2500. Global research interest continues to centre on the health indications of cancer, inflammation, immunity and gut health.