Researchers in Malta’s growing personalised medicine sector may have discovered a new weapon in the fight against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The team at the University of Malta (UM) has found that a chemical extract from the prickly pear cactus and brown seaweed known as peacock’s tail – which both grow readily in the Mediterranean region – limit the buildup of sticky proteins into large clumps that can harm the nervous system, eroding mobility or memory.

Lead study author Ruben J. Cauchi, PhD, a faculty member at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking of the University of Malta, said: “We believe that the discovery of bioactive agents that target pathways that are hit by multiple neurodegenerative conditions is the most viable approach in our current fight against brain disorders. A clear advantage of the drugs used in this study is that, in view of their excellent safety profile, they are already on the market as nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals.”

The University of Malta has become a growing hub of research on Human Genomics and Genetics Medicine, with the new Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking providing 25 brand new laboratories to enhance new advances in personalised or precision medicine.

The centre, inaugurated in June 2016, represents a 6.5 million Euro investment by the University of Malta and Malta’s Ministry for Education and Employment as part of a larger plan to boost Malta’s knowledge economy through the further development of its Life Science and Medical Biotechnology sector. The University is adjacent to the Mater Dei Hospital and the Life Sciences Park and it is anticipated that some of the fruits of the Centre’s research may be translated into new business development by Maltese companies.

Its Malta Biobank provides essential samples to study the role of particular genes and their resultant molecules, both in health and disease, for the discovery of new personalised medicines. The centre has made a number of discoveries which could assist with new treatments for rare blood disorders, diabetes, osteoporosis, certain types of cancers, and heart disorders.

The UM research team began by running tests to determine the effect of the plant extracts on brewer’s yeast brimming with beta-amyloid clumps, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Following treatment with the prickly pear and seaweed extracts, the yeast’s health improved dramatically. A further test on fruit flies showed that the seaweed extract extended the median lifespan of the flies by two days. When the prickly pear extract was used, the life extension doubled to four days. Considering that one day in the life of a fruit fly is equivalent to around one year in humans, the results are dramatic. The mobility of the sick flies was also improved by about 18 per cent after treatment.

Scientists also discovered that the substances prolonged the lifespan of flies with brains overloaded with alpha-synuclein, a gummy protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease.     

The research team is working closely with the company that extracts the molecules, Malta’s Institute of Cellular Pharmacology, which produces vegetal extracts for the Pharmaceutical, Nutraceutical, Cosmetics and Veterinary Industries, to make the most of the discovery. Study co-author Neville Vassallo, MD, PhD, professor of molecular physiology at the University of Malta School of Medicine and Surgery, said: “We have long been screening plants scattered across the Mediterranean for small molecules that interfere with the buildup of toxic protein aggregates. The robust effects of chemicals derived from the prickly pear and brown seaweed confirm that our search has certainly not been in vain.”

(via ScienceDaily, The University of Malta, NewAtlas)

Featured image: Researchers in Malta believe extracts from prickly pear could play a significant role in helping Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients (Credit: thug1747/Depositphotos)