UMMC immunologist explores algae extract’s effects on seniors’ health
By Jack Mazurak
If the algae spirulina built better health for centuries across ancient cultures, it might improve immune systems in today’s seniors.
A clinical trial still enrolling participants is under way in the Division of Allergy and Immunology
to test the theory.
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae
rich in linoleic acids, B vitamins and a variety of minerals. Aztecs in what is now Mexico ate spirulina regularly, as did people in what’s now the central African nation of Chad.
In more recent decades, companies in many industrialized nations have grown and marketed spirulina in powder, pill and capsule form as a dietary supplement. While many recognize spirulina’s overall benefits for health, the UMMC study focuses on a more defined and at-risk group.
The pilot study at UMMC aims to identify whether and how much of the spirulina extract immulina it takes to improve the immune response of adults 60 and older. Seniors stand a greater risk for complications from colds, flu and other common infections.
“As people age, their susceptibility to mortality from influenza increases,” said Dr. Gailen Marshall, professor and R. Faser Triplet Sr. M.D. Chair in Allergy and Immunology. “Even the flu vaccine becomes less effective for them.”
Similarly, people’s immune systems weaken with age. That’s why older people die from infections, including flu, pneumonia, West Nile virus and sepsis, more often than younger people.
“If we can improve people’s immune system response with immulina, they may respond more robustly to the vaccine, which would better prepare their bodies to fight off the actual, live flu virus,” Marshall said.
He plans to enroll 50 people into the study. He began taking volunteers in August and will accept more on a rolling basis.
Participants will receive an envelope of pills – either immulina or a placebo – to take four times daily. They will visit a UMMC clinic weekly for four weeks to fill out questionnaires and give saliva samples and two tablespoons of blood.
After researchers collect the remaining pills, participants will make two return visits two weeks apart. By analyzing blood and saliva samples taken during and after the immulina treatment, Marshall and his team will be able to tell to what level and how long the immune-boosting effects lasted.
For the pilot study, Marshall is working with the National Center for Natural Products Research
at the University of Mississippi, which is supplying and preparing the immulina.
“I’ve collaborated for a couple years with Dr. Larry Walker and Dr. David Pascoe,” Marshall said. “They’d been working with immulina for a while and have considered it for use in cancer patients.”
If the results show promise, Marshall will apply to the National Institutes of Health
to fund an investigation of immulina’s abilities to boost the effectiveness of flu vaccines in seniors.
“That study would also consider whether immulina’s effects are different based on gender and race,” he said.
The pilot represents a piece in a larger puzzle, too. Marshall aims to establish a center for integrative medicine at UMMC that will investigate, teach and practice proven treatments and methods from the world’s major medical systems.
To gather feedback from UMMC faculty, staff and students, he’s posted a questionnaire about his proposed center (click here
). Those interested in the immulina pilot study can call the Division of Allergy and Immunology at 5-5374.