New wave of marine research takes shape
The Atlantic – we use it as a source of food, it influences our weather and some hardy souls even swim in it. But could it also be a trove of innovations for health-related products, like new dietary supplements and better ways to deliver drugs in the body?
A European initiative, MarMed, is trawling for such new ideas from the Atlantic, and two research groups at NUI Galway are involved.
The focus of MarMed is on developing products from marine resources that are beneficial to human health, explains Dr Richard Walsh, a post-doctoral researcher with the Irish Seaweed Research Group at NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute.
And when it comes to the marine, Ireland has plenty of potential.
The Marine Institute’s Real map of Ireland (right) highlights the 220 million or so acres of seabed territory that stretch out from the relatively small chunk of dry land we can see.
Taking stock of marine use
So how will MarMed seek to harness health benefits from the ocean? The approach will first take stock of how Atlantic resources are currently used, and will then identify potential innovations, according to Walsh.
“We want to understand the current resources that are available in the marine space – what materials are harvested, like fish and seaweed, what byproducts are produced, and what is being underexploited,” he says.
“Then the second is the real core of the whole project – once we have identified resources that are potential avenues of valorisation we have to generate ideas and test them at the proof-of-concept stage.”
Under the initiative, which is led by the University of Minho in Portugal, the 10 partners from France, Portugal, Spain, the UK and Ireland will each generate one or two key ideas, and will look to engage with companies with an interest in the area. “We try to collaborate with companies as early as possible,” says Walsh.
MarMed is funded to the tune of just over €2 million under the Atlantic Area Translational Programme 2007-2013, and around €500,000 is going to the partners at NUI Galway.
For the Irish Seaweed Research Group, the focus will be on macro-algae or seaweed.
“In Ireland 30,000 wet tonnes of seaweed are harvested annually, and around 25,000 of those are bladder wrack, with most of it being harvested on the west coast of Ireland,” says Walsh. “But there is potential for more sustainable harvesting.”
The research group has already come up with an idea for an enriched dietary supplement from seaweed, which Walsh believes will go down well with consumers thanks to seaweed’s “healthy” image.
“People know that eating seaweed is a healthy option, and dietary supplements that are based on macro-algae are common,” he says.
“And we want to have a unique selling point by enriching them with trace elements.”
A sea of inspiration for biomaterials
Meanwhile, other sea dwellers can offer cues for innovations that could be developed for use in the clinic.
“One of the great potential sources of biomaterials or biotherapeutics is the marine space,” says Prof Abhay Pandit, who directs the Science Foundation Ireland-funded Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials at NUI Galway, which is also a partner in MarMed.
“And Ireland’s territory has a huge marine resource which is largely unexploited for health.”
In general, looking at how organisms behave in the oceans can offer researchers potential leads on health innovations.
“Why do biofilms not form on the surface of shells – there are maybe some anti-microbial properties that one can harness.
“Or perhaps looking at how organisms can ‘stick’ to surfaces in a wet and salty environment in the sea could lead to new biocompatible adhesives that could be used in surgery,” says Prof Pandit.
“And here in Galway we have a particular interest in harnessing marine algae for drug-delivery applications.”
He notes that Galway, which has a relatively high concentration of medical technology companies, is well placed for harnessing the marine potential.
“We have the ocean here, and the medical device companies,” says Pandit. “It’s a great opportunity.”