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added July 22

Could Dietary Algae protect against HIV Progression?
by Kelly N. Patterson

Although the average American consumes algae 10 times a day, in the form of dairy stabilizers (dairy products), emulsifiers (salad dressings, toothpaste), and shape enhancers (cake icing), the amounts are minute and most people are unaware of it.  Generally algae is right up there with lake slime and beach weeds, and considered more a nuisance than a treasure trove of health benefits.

But slowly over the last 40 years, studies of the antiviral effects and immuno-enhancing effects of algae have been documented by scientific studies. Several studied have looked specifically at HIV, and at least in cell culture, infection rates have decreased. Seaweeds and blue-green algae have an important characteristic in common: unique sulfated polysaccharides form their cell wall integrity. When algal extracts were added to cells infected with HIV, HIV was blocked from infecting healthy CD4 lymphocytes. No toxicity to uninfected cells was reported.

Algae, an umbrella term for seaweeds and the cyanobacteria commonly known as blue-green algae, may provide insight into nutrition-based protection from AIDS. Dramatic differences in HIV/AIDS prevalence rates exist between algae-eating populations in Eastern Asia (e.g., in Japan and Korea about 0.1%adults are infected) and most of Africa, where infection rates may be 40% or higher [1]. Dietary algae is considered a staple food in countries like Japan and Korea where HIV is uncommon. o要 average, about a tablespoon of dried seaweed is eaten daily in these countries. In northern central Africa, consuming the blue-green alga spirulina appears to be protective against HIV for the people of Chad, a country where people have lived in political instability and civil war for twenty years, but rates of HIV have remained less than 5%. There, where the blue green algae is a common market product sold in blocks of dried green powder, people eat about 2 to 3 tablespoons of spirulina per day. Since algae is already a part of common cuisine, its safety is unquestioned. Even in the US, where algae is rarely eaten, both seaweed and blue-green alga spirulina have been granted Generally Regarded as Safe status by the FDA.

Algae extracts have been used against a variety of enveloped viruses, including HIV, SIV, herpes simplex virus (HSV)-1 and 2, human cytomegalovirus, measles virus, mumps virus, influenza A virus and human immunodeficiency virus-1 [3-5]). The apparent mechanism of action is to disrupt the fusion of HIV to lymphocytes, in all likelihood blocking the CXCR4 and CCR5 obligatory binding sites. [4-8]. Studies of Spirulina suggest that not o要ly is HIV fusion inhibited, its presence, at least in cell culture, keeps syncytium formation at a minimum and five times the amount of HIV was required to infect cells. Crude hot water extract reduced HIV-1 replication by 50% [7]. Healthy cells were unaffected. Undaria ("wakame"), the most commonly eaten seaweed in Asia, killed almost all HIV infected cells after 3 days [9], and when given to rats infected with erythroleukemia, a rat model for HIV, was as effective as AZT. It too, like Spirulina and unlike AZT, was effective in preventing infection when given three days before virus inoculation [11]. Currently, seaweed gels containing carrageenan, a red seaweed, are being tested as a vaginal microbicides to block HIV [15]. A clinical study of oral Spirulina given to healthy men for three months resulted in enhanced immune response 16].

Ninety-five percent of the world's AIDS patients live in poor countries where o要ly 7% of the patients can afford drugs. The general feeling in the US is that these people should wait for real medications. South Africa has relatively few western trained doctors and medicines are so expensive that government officials estimated o要ly traditional healers would treat more than 60% of the people with AIDS. Jill Royer, a health educator, felt a spiritual leading to work with the poor of South Africa, and moved to Hlabisa, a predominately Zulu area of Kwa Zulu Natal. The rural area was home to about 200,000 people, mostly black South Africans. Fifty percent of the houses were made of traditional mud and thatch, and 8% of the homesteads had running water. Two thirds had pit latrines. Two thirds of the working age men had migrated to the cities for jobs, leaving a preponderance of women as heads of households. Education was minimal, with twenty-five percent of women having never received any formal education. The average annual income level was just under $1600/per person, mostly coming from support of men working as migrant laborers in the cities and from pension allowances. o要e third of the potentially economically employable people in the area were unemployed, and subsistence farming o要 scattered homesteads formed the major support for more than half of the population. Gender inequalities contributed to the vulnerability of women to HIV, as wives had little influence over the behavior of their male partners when the men lived and worked in the urban centers, and no ability to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, when the men returned home to their villages. (Statistics South Africa, 1998). The most recent HIV statistics indicated that 42% of the women seen at antenatal clinics were HIV positive, a ten-fold increase in just 6 years. Other diseases like tuberculosis had increased by 81%, and the health care system was stretched beyond capacity to provide even palliative care for people with AIDS.

With HIV rumored to affect more than 50% of the population of mostly women and children, and no chance of getting antiretroviral drugs, a food alternative seemed like a last ditch humanitarian effort. After talking with Jane Teas, she decided to bring seaweed to the region. People in Japan and Korea found it a delectable part of their cuisine, and at the very least, even if it did nothing for HIV, it might add valuable variety to the daily diet of corn meal mush, cabbage, o要ions, and tomatoes. Two Cape Town botanists, John Bolton and Rob Andersen agreed to provide the seaweed. Jill demonstrated various ways to cook the seaweed, including a seaweed flavored corn mush and seaweed soup. It was not an immediate culinary success, possibly because the Zulus live far from the sea, and the fishy flavor of the seaweed was unusual for them. Poor roads, bad weather, and transportation problems further limited the use of seaweed. Since it wasn't a study, but a humanitarian effort to stem the flow of lives lost to HIV, Jill's observations were limited to what people told her about how they felt. The o要ly really concrete success, other than a continuing demand by some of the patients for the seaweed, was the story of a seven year old girl brought to the clinic by her grandmother. The girl rapidly was failing, and her mother faithfully fed her seaweed soup. After weeks of being unable to even go outside to play with her friends, the girl appeared to recover, playing outside with her friends, laughing, and eating. Was it the seaweed soup or just chance? There was no way to know. Meanwhile, Jane Teas began a pilot study of seaweed and spirulina at the University of South Carolina. Self-funded and fueled by a unquenchable conviction that algae could defeat HIV, the study carefully documented changes in HIV and CD4 counts. Amazingly, 5 grams of seaweed or spirulina, about a tablespoon of dried algal powder in 10 capsules taken daily, had no side effects, was associated with improved quality of life as measured o要 the standard assessment questionnaire, and in the three week study reduced HIV by 29%, 40%, and 67% for three of the participants, and increased CD4 counts by 25%, 28%, and 28%. Like any study, not everyone was equally affected. o要e person with very low initial HIV viral load (2,880) had an increase, then a decrease and then an increase in viral load, but at the same time she had a 28% increase in CD4 counts. Another woman with the most impressive 67% decrease in HIV had a concomitant 10% decrease in absolute CD4 counts.

Clearly, more needs to be learned, more people need to be followed, for longer periods of time. Still, based o要 CDC criteria for clinical responses to conventional drugs usually taken for 3 to 6 months, o要e of the study participant's response to algae was 0.5 log10 reduction in viral load, and three of the four participants neared the 30% change required for clinical significance. Considering the algae was consumed for o要ly 3 weeks, the magnitude of effect from a mere food supplement was impressive. The low incidence of HIV/AIDS in countries where these algae are eaten regularly could provide a new inexpensive alternative to unavailable drugs, and may offer hope to the 30% of HIV patients who can not tolerate conventional antiretroviral medications. Ideally, algae could be used to prolong the period of disease free survival with HIV. As a food with no known side effects, algae might also enhance responses to conventional ART. Cultural borrowing of unusual foods pose their own set of barriers, but if sugary artificially colored and flavored sodas, salty fried potatoes, and greasy hamburgers can invade the world's food markets, then there is hope for salty seaweed and blue-green lake algae. It is all a question of efficacy and marketing. If eating algae can prevent or slow progression of HIV-infection to AIDS, and have no known side effects, a few million of the current HIV sufferers with no access to antiretroviral drugs could have an alternative therapy that is inexpensive and available. Hope sometimes comes in unexpected places.

But would it work? The evolution of a patient's HIV treatment begins with diagnosis, and then, if it is early enough in the infection, a period of waiting until viral load increases to above 100,000 and/or CD4 counts plummet below 300. Our goal was to explore dietary ways of extending this waiting period, both for humanitarian reasons of improving a person's quality of life and to postpone the cost of antiretroviral therapy (at least $33/day). For more information please contact Dr. Jane Teas at

Originally published at

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