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 fucoidan became commercially available, global research into its unique bioactive properties increased significantly. There are now over 2000 scientific papers supporting the physiological benefits of fucoidan. 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 history of fucoidan 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.
The anticoagulant activities of fucoidan fractions from Fucus vesiculousus were discovered by Professor Springer and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA.
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 on cancer cells began to emerge, primarily from Japan. Studies, such as those published by Yamaoto et al. were published reporting anti-tumour effects.
A Japanese research group led by Sugawara published multiple papers indicating fucoidan may have a future role in immune response.
Stoolman and Rosen’s research at the University of California in the USA showed fucoidan blocked cell surface receptors on lymphocytes.
Research by Teas et al. in the USA suggested that a diet containing 5% brown seaweed was effective in delaying tumour development in rats.
Research by Australian team Chong and Parish suggested a possible role for fucoidan in inflammatory response.
Baba et al. found that sulfated polysaccharides, including fucoidan, inhibited the infection and replication of various viruses.
Australian researchers Willenborg and Parish were the first to show that fucoidan inhibited 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 of fucoidan manufacture in the Southern Hemisphere.
Fucoidan research expanded significantly in the 1990s in Japan, including multiple studies by Itoh et al. on anti-tumor activity.
Swedish based Hirmo et al. published a research paper on sulfated polysaccharides such as fucoidan having inhibition action on the growth 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 Undaria from Patagonia, Argentina.
Marinova developed the proprietary Maritech® extraction process. Differing from traditional extraction methods, the Maritech® process is solvent free therefore producing fucoidan extracts that remain unadulterated in chemical structure and free from solvent residues.
The efficacy of fucoidan 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 market, offering skin soothing, protecting, brightening, anti-ageing and antioxidant properties.
The supplementation of elderly Japanese men and women with fucoidan was shown to increases immune responses to 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 demonstrated activity against norovirus – for which there are no current treatments.
A Chinese research team published a comprehensive review on the potential of fucoidan 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 fucoidan to image thrombi and may become the first intravenous clinical application of fucoidan.
An Australian clinical study revealed that fucoidan from Undaria pinnatifida influences over 30 different biological pathways and processes.
Australian and UK researchers demonstrated that fucoidan is effective in significantly reducing clinical symptoms and lung damage in a severe Influenza A H1N1 model.