Science News

Seaweed Trips up Cancer Causing Virus

Sat, 22nd Jul 2006

Part of the show Exploding Jellyfish, Marine Conservation and Sharks

US researchers have found that carrageenan, a sulphur-containing sugary molecule widely used as a food thickening agent and extracted from a type of red algae, is extremely potent at blocking infections by human papilloma virus (HPV), the agent which causes cervical cancer. Writing in the July edition of PLOS pathogens, the National Cancer Institute's John Schiller and his team think that carrageenan achieves this effect partly through a decoy effect, fooling the virus into locking onto the sugar instead of a target cell.
This is partly down to the fact that the carrageenan molecule looks similar to heparan sulphate, a substance present on the cell surface which HPV anchors itself to before infecting the cell. Because carrageenan is already in widespread commercial use as a thickening agent in cosmetics and foods and is therefore already accepted to be safe, the researchers suggest that it could make a significant contribution to preventing HPV infection and that trials are needed to find out.

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