Can salt flat pigment treat cancer?

Researchers have identified the anti-cancer capacity of a pigment present in the Santa Pola salt flats in eastern Spain.

The pigment is produced by certain microorganisms, ‘halophilic archaea’, to protect against sunlight, and its anti-tumor capacity has been tested in several types of breast cancer.

The study took place at the University of Alicante’s Applied Biochemistry research group in Spain, in collaboration with researchers from Alicante University Hospital Dr. Balmis (HGUDB) and Alicante Health and Biomedical Research Institute (ISABIAL)⁠.

The Salinas de Santa Pola, or the Santa Pola salt flats, are located just south of Alicante.

Professor of Biology and director of the group, Rosa María Martínez, said the important findings, which have been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, starting with the development of Micaela Giani’s PhD thesis. There, he demonstrated—through in vitro assays—the antioxidant activity of pigments and their effect on enzymes (biocatalysts) involved in pathologies such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

After these results were published, they wondered what would happen if they added the pigment to cancer cells, based on the hypothesis that, as a pigment with almost 300 times higher antioxidant activity than other antioxidants, it could limit the ability of these cells to grow. and reproduce.

Microorganisms from the Santa Pola salt flats. Photo/Alicante University of Applied Biochemistry research group⁠

In this second phase, the research group is working closely with Gloria Peiró, pathologist at HGUDB and lecturer in the UA Department of Biotechnology, and Yoel Genaro Montoyo-Pujol, PhD in Experimental and Biosanitary Sciences and researcher at UA. The two scientists are members of the breast cancer and immunology research group at ISABIAL.

Due to such collaboration, the effects of these pigments can be tested in vitro in cell lines representing different intrinsic phenotypes of breast cancer and healthy breast tissue lines. According to Martínez, they came to the conclusion that, in certain doses, the pigment does not cause harmful effects on healthy cells, but limits the growth capacity of neoplastic cells. He also emphasized that these findings open the door for biomedicine, to devise new strategies against cancer based on the use of natural compounds, which are harmless to the body.

Rare carotenoid pigment

Halophilic archaea are extrophilic microorganisms that require a hypersaline environment to thrive, so they are mainly found in coastal salt marshes, inland salt marshes, or hypersaline lakes. This microorganism synthesizes a rare C50 carotenoid pigment called bacteriorruberin (BR) and its derivatives monoanhydrobacterioruberin (MABR) and bisanhydrobacterioruberin (BABR).

Photo/Alicante University of Applied Biochemistry research group⁠

Based on this discovery, the researchers say there are several new research paths to follow, starting with expanding studies with different cell lines from other tumor types, continuing with tests on tissue samples from biopsies or surgical specimens, to design possible treatment protocols using this pigment. , and then turned to animal research before achieving clinical use in patients.

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