A University of Santo Tomas research group, headed by National Research Council of the Philippines – Pharmaceutical Science Project member and UST Laboratory Equipment and Supplies Office Administrator Prof. Ross D. Vasquez, Ph.D., found that polysaccharides extracted from the Codium species are “effective against cancer cells and destructive enzymes associated with cancer metastasis,” said a press statement released by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) on February 21, 2019.
Codium species, specifically the seasonally available seaweed known as pukpuklo, can be found in selected waters in Ilocos Norte, Cagayan Province, Iloilo, and Aklan. It is often harvested for food. In Ilocos, it is made into a seaweed salad dish with the same name.
According to the DOST press release, the study “evaluated the inhibitory potential of the polysaccharides fractions isolated from Codium species” and found that the polysaccharides “fight destructive enzymes that aid metastasis or spread of cancer to different parts of the body.” Polysaccharides are carbohydrates whose molecules consist of a number of sugar molecules bonded together, such as starch, glycogen, or cellulose.
Though there has been much research on other similar Codium species, this seems to be the pioneering study for pukpuklo, said Vasquez during a publicly-available online video interview with Agila Balita. He explained that two years had been devoted to conducting the research. The first year was for characterization and extraction of the polysaccharides, while the second year was dedicated to biological activities, such as testing its properties on cancer cells, rats, and normal cells within the lab.
In the same interview, Vasquez said that while obtaining the pukpuklo, he learned from the local fishermen that this seaweed cannot be grown elsewhere because it needs very specific conditions under which it can grow. He found that the pukpuklo needs certain variables, such as temperature, pH level, oxygen concentration, and other features of the marine waters, to be jointly conducive for growth.
While the pukpuklo can be eaten raw, the anti-cancer properties of pukpuklo do not extend to raw consumption, said Vasquez. The polysaccharides make up a very small percentage of the ‘thallus’, or body, of the plant and has to be extracted first by using a treatment. A challenge the researchers face is increasing the yield of extracts from the seaweed.
In one kilogram of pukpuklo, only around four to eight grams of the sulfated polysaccharides, which can inhibit the growth of lung cancer cells and breast cancer cells, can be extracted. However, before extracts from the pukpuklo are ready for commercialization, Vasquez says that there remains a need for follow-up research on the specific structure and mechanism of action of the anti-cancer properties of the polysaccharides.
Fruits of Thomasian Research
The study, titled “Medical potential of polysaccharide fractions from Codium species as cytotoxic and matrix metalloproteinase=1 (MMP-1) inhibitory agent,” was first publicly presented by Vasquez at the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines (DOST-NRCP) Second Basic Research Symposium held in October 2018 at the Hotel Jen, Pasay City. With the theme “Communicating Basic Research Results to the People: The Value of Philippine Flora and Fauna,” the symposium had six presentations of completed projects.
Also part of the research group were UST Faculty of Pharmacy faculty member Prof. Jovencio G. Apostol, Ph.D., and Regina Belen Callanta, a biological sciences student at the UST Graduate School. NRCP provided a grant of 1.3 million Philippine pesos for the completion of the research project.
In the same symposium, “The Phylogeny of Argostemma species (Rubiaceae)” was presented by UST Office for Graduate Research Director Prof. Grecebio Jonathan B. Alejandro, Dr.rer.nat. He examined the genetic makeup of the Philippine endemic coffee shrubs.