New research has opened the possibility that Icelandic moss might contain compounds that could prove useful in the fight against cancer and malaria.
Sesselja Ómarsdóttir, Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical and Natural Products Chemistry at the University of Iceland, has focused mostly on marine invertabrates. In a recent interview published on the university website, she explains, “Natural substances and their derivatives are the active chemicals in more than a third of all pharmaceuticals on the market and more than two thirds of all cancer drugs and antibiotics are natural substances derived from plants, marine animals or microbes. This is not surprising, considering that organisms; especially those unable to escape, are constantly waging chemical warfare against each other.”
What compounds the microbes and simple plants in and around Iceland could yield, however, has not been fully explored.
“The search for new bioactive substances from Icelandic marine organisms is important because very little research on the chemistry of the fauna and flora of the sea around Iceland has been done,” she said in part. “Most bioactive chemicals have been discovered in marine organisms from southern seas, but marine organisms from northern seas have been all but ignored in the pharmaceutical context. Within Icelandic marine territories there are between six and eight thousand species of marine animals. Of these very few are utilised.”
Speaking to Vísir, Sesselja mentioned moss as an example of a plant that could produce valuable compounds. “Moss is one of the most primitive plants on earth, and some believe it to be the first plant to make its way onto land. Because it is primitive, and because it has survived for millions of years, it would be interesting to see what compounds it produces to survive and defend itself against disease. It has recently come to light that it produces some interesting compounds that I am testing on cancer cells and malarial protists.”
Sesselja says that the results so far have been very promising, but for now testing remains strictly in the lab, and is not yet ready for experimentation on human subjects.
When met with scepticism, she reminds people that nearly a third of the pharmaceuticals available today are derived from plants and one-celled organisms.
Research in the field will be ongoing and rigorous, saying in the university interview, “We are especially looking for compounds affecting the survival of cancer cells, which could help in the struggle against malignant diseases, and substances that can influence immune responses and thus help in the treatment of inflammatory diseases.”
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